Are Images an Aid to True Worship?
ACCORDING to certain religious organizations, the use of images is a great aid to worship. Thus when a stranger visits a religious edifice such as St. Peter’s basilica in Rome he is struck with the many images found therein, of popes, of saints, of the apostles, of Mary the mother of Jesus, of Moses and of others. A particularly striking image in that basilica is the life-size black bronze statue of Peter, before which he may see several devout Catholics waiting their turn to kiss the big toe of the right foot.
Jesus said that God is looking for those to worship him who do so with spirit and with truth. (John 4:23, 24, NW) Does such reverence and worship of images aid in true worship? Does it find any support in the Scriptures? What is its origin?
When God gave his law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai he purposely revealed no likeness of himself, so that they could not even have an excuse to make an image and worship it. (Deut. 4:15-23) At that time God plainly commanded them: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them.” And later God further commanded them: “Ye shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear you up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am Jehovah your God.” (Ex. 20:3-5; Lev. 26:1, AS) True, God commanded the making of cherubim for the mercy seat, but these were always hidden from public view.—Num. 4:5.
Nor was the use of images authorized in the new system of things inaugurated by Christ Jesus. No, but Christians were plainly told that images were nothing and they were warned to keep themselves from idols, to flee from them.—1 Cor. 8:4-6; 10:14; 1 John 5:21, NW.
And so history records that during the first three centuries of the Christian era images were unknown to the followers of Christ. Says the Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. XII, page 750 (1907 edition): “The early Christians were absolutely unanimous in utterly condemning all heathen image-worship and the various customs, many of them obviously immoral, with which it was associated; it is needless to multiply citations from the fathers in proof of so undisputed a fact.” “In point of fact it was a common accusation brought against Christians by their enemies that they had ‘no altars, no temples, no known images’; and that ‘they set up no image or form of any god’, and this charge was never denied.”
While some would attribute this fact to such circumstances as fewness of numbers, persecution and poverty, it cannot be denied that had they venerated images they would have found a way to have at least some images. Their complete absence proves that it was principle, not circumstances, that governed this. In fact, Christians were even accused of being atheists because of the total lack of images in their places of worship.
ORIGIN OF IMAGE WORSHIP
Image worship was the outgrowth of creature worship, concerning the origin of which the apostle Paul tells us: “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God nor did they thank him, but they became empty-headed in their reasonings and their unintelligent heart became darkened. Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.” (Rom. 1:21-23, NW) Although repeatedly warned by Jehovah God not to engage in such practices of the nations round about them, the Israelites time and again fell away from the worship of the invisible God to the worship of things seen, until at last there was no remedy.—Lev. 26:28, 30; Deut. 7:16; 2 Chron. 36:15, AS.
But what about the image worship practiced today by professed Christians? Is it likewise of pagan origin? Yes, unquestionably it is. For example, Cardinal Newman, in his work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, page 373, states that among the things “of pagan origin and sanctified by their adoption into the Church”, that is, the Roman Catholic Church, are images.
And the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, pages 666, 667, states that the early Christians got their idea of making images and paintings from “the statues of emperors, of pagan gods and heroes as well as pagan wall paintings. In the fourth century the Christian Roman citizens in the East offered gifts, incense, even prayers to the statues of the emperor. It would be natural that the people who bowed to, kissed, incensed the imperial eagles and the images of Caesar (with no suspicion of anything like idolatry), who paid elaborate reverence to an empty throne as his symbol, should give the same signs to the cross, the images of Christ, and the altar”.
But here the argument in favor of the use of images, while clearly showing their origin, also acts as a boomerang. Christians certainly had strayed far from the pure worship, which is commanded to keep itself unspotted from the world, when with a clear conscience they could offer prayers to, bow down to and kiss the statue of the emperor, and could pay elaborate reverence to his empty throne. Those that could do such things were in fact Christians in name only; and being able to do such things, why, of course, they would find no objection to bowing down and adoring statues of Jesus, etc.—Jas. 1:27, NW.
In endeavoring to justify the worship of images, the claim is made that such worship is relative, different from the worship directed to God, that the worship is merely directed through the image to the one represented by it, as a visual aid, and that God’s law was not meant to forbid that. Let it be noted, however, that God commanded the Israelites not only not to serve any images but also not even to bow down to them.—Ex. 20:3-5.
IMAGES VERY REAL TO MANY
Further, it does not at all follow that all those bowing down to an image fully appreciate the fact that it is merely a symbol. According to Du Bois, one of the early Roman Catholic missionaries in India, “the common people indubitably worship the image itself”.
And the same is true of the less educated in Roman Catholic lands. Regarding image worship in the eighth century A.D., we again quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The way in which some people treated their holy icons [images] argues more than the merely relative honour that Catholics are taught to observe toward them. . . . Icons were crowned with garlands, incensed, kissed. Lamps burned before them, hymns were sung in their honor. They were applied to sick persons by contact, set in the path of a fire or flood to stop it by a sort of magic.”—Vol. VII, page 668.
Note here an inconsistency. On a previous page this authority used the fact of some professed Christians’ kissing, bowing to and incensing the statue of the emperor as justification for doing the same to “Christian” images, while here the doing of such things is tacitly condemned. Nor is the using of statues, as if they had magical powers, limited to Catholics of the eighth century. After twelve more centuries of instruction by the Catholic Church we still find her people doing the same.
According to a special dispatch to the Providence Sunday Journal, December 24, 1950, back in 1928 the angry villagers of Mascali left the statue of their patron saint, St. Leonard, to burn in the onrushing lava because it had failed to stop the flow of the volcano. We may feel amusement at their chagrin, but must also feel pity at such blindness. The same dispatch credited St. Andrew with stopping the flow of lava for the villagers of Milo, in 1950. In 1944 Italian peasants placed their images in the path of the flowing lava from Mount Vesuvius in a vain attempt to stop it.
The Catholic Herald, London, December 15, 1950, published a picture showing the inhabitants of Milo carrying a statue of “Our Lady” right to the edge of the advancing avalanche of lava during a recent eruption of Mt. Etna. But all in vain; the village had to be abandoned. And to this very day the unlearned Catholic people of Mexico, Central America and South America daily place food and drink offerings before the images of their “saints”, exactly the same as did the ignorant folk back there in the eighth century A.D.
According to Gregory I, “the Great,” deceased A.D. 604, images “are the books of the ignorant”. With only such books no wonder the ignorant of such lands have continued ignorant for more than twelve centuries! More helpful was Augustine’s observation that some were looking for Christ and his apostles “on painted walls” instead of looking for them in the written Word of God.
It is unthinkable that the apostle John wanted to give an angel the worship due only to God; yet the angel would not permit John to give him even “relative” worship. Cornelius, being a devout man, likewise would not have thought of giving Peter the worship due only to God; yet Peter did not allow even a “relative” worship. If neither Peter nor an angel could be given “relative” worship, then how could we properly give it to inanimate images?—Acts 10:24-26; Rev. 19:10.
True worship bows down only to Jehovah God. It directs its prayers only to him, even as commanded by Christ Jesus. For its aid God has provided, not images, but his Word, his spirit and his organization. It walks by faith and not by sight.—Matt. 6:9; John 16:13; 2 Cor. 5:7; 2 Tim. 3:15-17, NW.
Their idols are but silver and gold, the product of men’s hands. They have mouths, but cannot s peak; eyes have they, but cannot see; ears have they, but cannot hear; . . . Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.—Psalm 115:4-6, 8, An Amer. Trans.