The Christian View of Images
“YOU broke with idolatry . . . and became servants of the real, living God,” wrote the apostle Paul to Christians in Thessalonica. (1 Thessalonians 1:9*) Yes, many early Christians were at one time pagan idolaters. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) But upon becoming Christians, they ceased idolatrous practices.
Bowing before idols was so common, however, that Christians were mocked because they worshiped without images. Some pagans even accused them of being atheists! How, then, did the veneration of images later become so widespread in Christendom?
Christendom’s Images—From Where?
Many pagan practices were introduced among “Christians” after the so-called conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. “From the days of Constantine,” states religious historian Edwyn Bevan in his book Holy Images, “the use of the Cross as a symbol throughout the Christian world became common and forms of homage were soon addressed to it.” This paved the way for other forms of image worship. The same book observes: “It seems probable that before the offering of homage to pictures and images the custom had come in of offering homage to the symbol of the Cross, which itself . . . is not found on Christian monuments or objects of religious art before Constantine set the example in the labarum [military standard incorporating a cross].”
This development continued. In the eighth century C.E., John of Damascus, considered a “saint” by the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, wrote: “As the holy Fathers overthrew the temples and shrines of the devils, and raised in their places shrines in the names of Saints and we worship them, so also they overthrew the images of the devils, and in their stead raised images of Christ, and God’s Mother, and the Saints.”
To this, Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholic “saint” of the 13th century, added: “The same reverence should be displayed towards an image of Christ and towards Christ Himself . . . The Cross is adored with the same adoration as Christ, that is, with the adoration of latria [Catholic definition for the highest form of worship], and for that reason we address and supplicate the Cross just as we do the Crucified Himself.”
Aquinas is still viewed as an important contributor to the doctrine of the “veneration of images.” According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the “veneration of images” had to await him “to find its own fullest explanation.” Nevertheless, it is clear that “Christian” image worship merely served to replace pagan image worship.
Justifying the Use of Religious Images
Many today who venerate religious images would object to being called image worshipers. Their objections to such a designation, however, are not new. In the fourth century, so-called Saint Augustine mocked the reasonings of idol-worshiping non-Christians, saying: “There is a certain disputer who seemeth unto himself learned, and saith, I do not worship that stone, nor that image which is without sense; . . . I worship not this image; but I adore what I see, and serve him whom I see not.” In other words, they claimed to worship only the invisible person represented by their idols. “By giving this account of their images,” Augustine added, “they seem to themselves able disputants, because they do not worship idols, and yet do worship devils.”—Expositions on the Book of Psalms by Augustine, Psalm xcvii 9.
Though Roman Catholic theologians have been quick to condemn pagan idolatry, when it comes to their own use of images, they have often resorted to the very justifications that the so-called pagan has used. For example, regarding images of Christ, Mary, and the “saints,” the 16th-century Council of Trent declared: “Due honor and veneration is to be given them; not, however that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them by reason of which they are to be venerated.” Why, then, the veneration? “Because the honor which is shown them,” explained the council, “is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the heads and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints, whose likeness they bear.”
To this day the Roman Catholic Church continues to justify idolatry on the same grounds: that images are simply a means to focus attention upon the heavenly one represented by them and that no virtue or power resides in the images. To what extent, though, has this proved true in actual practice? Do all who use images really believe that there is no ‘divinity or virtue in them’?
Images—The Worshiper’s Viewpoint
In Seville, Spain, a fanatical rivalry exists between the followers of the Virgin la Macarena and the Virgin de la Esperanza. In Chartres Cathedral, France, there are three Virgins—Our Lady of the Pillar, Our Lady of the Crypt, and Our Lady of the “Belle Verriere”—each having its own devotees. Apparently the worshipers are convinced that their image of the Madonna is somehow superior to the other images—even though all three images represent the same person! Clearly, then, homage is being paid, not to what is represented, but to the images themselves.
So, what the Roman Catholic Church excuses as relative worship often turns out to be actual worship of an image. Theological subtleties mean very little in the face of centuries of actual practice.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible’s counsel contradicts the theories of theologians. God made plain to ancient Israel that idolatry was totally condemned. (Exodus 20:4, 5; Deuteronomy 4:15-19) True, some representations, such as the copper serpent Moses made, were permitted. Bowing down in worship of such objects, though, was strictly forbidden.—Numbers 21:9; 2 Kings 18:1, 4.
At times Israel disobeyed this prohibition on idolatry. For example, at Sinai, Israel made a golden calf for worship. How blasphemous it was for them to ‘exchange God’s glory for a representation of a bull, an eater of vegetation’! (Psalm 106:20, NW) But like some religionists today, they claimed to worship, not the bull, but God himself! “‘Here is your God, Israel,’ they cried ‘who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:1-5) Jehovah, however, did not tolerate this “relative” worship, this blatant reversion to Egyptian religion. (Acts 7:39-41) It directly violated the covenant they had entered into at Sinai, and it brought Israel into danger of obliteration.—Exodus 32:9, 10, 30-35; Deuteronomy 4:23.
Why, though, did Jehovah God take such a strong position against images? For one thing, images are powerless; they are nothing. (Deuteronomy 32:21a; Psalm 31:6) Jeremiah said they were like scarecrows, with no breath in them. (Jeremiah 10:5, 14) Isaiah likewise ridiculed those who use part of a tree to make a fire for cooking and another part to make a god. The prophet warns that such idol worshipers “know nothing, understand nothing. Their eyes are shut to all seeing, their heart to all reason.”—Isaiah 44:13-18.
One particularly lethal danger connected with image worship is the possibility of an image serving as a contact point with demonic forces. The psalmist said of the Israelites: “Serving the pagans’ idols, they found themselves trapped into sacrificing their own sons and daughters to demons.” (Psalm 106:35-37; compare Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17.) As a result, the way was opened for other superstitious, spiritistic practices. Another example is that of King Manasseh, who revived idolatry in Israel. Subsequently, “he built altars to the whole array of heaven in the two courts of the Temple” and “practised soothsaying and magic.”—2 Kings 21:1-6.
The Christian Greek Scriptures warn of the same dangers. The New Bible Dictionary says: “The Old Testament polemic against idolatry . . . recognizes the same two truths which Paul was later to affirm: that the idol was nothing, but that nevertheless there was a demonic spiritual force to be reckoned with, and that the idol therefore constituted a positive spiritual menace.” Paul wrote: “We know that idols do not really exist in the world and that there is no god but the One.” But later he warned: “The sacrifices that they offer they sacrifice to demons who are not God. I have no desire to see you in communion with demons.”—1 Corinthians 8:4; 10:19, 20.
Yes, wicked spirit forces are eager to bring individuals under their control. Paul wrote: “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) Image worship of any sort therefore deadens one’s spiritual perceptions, encourages superstition, and facilitates manipulation by the occult rulers of this dark, evil world.
Worshiping ‘in Truth’
Many sincere people use images to draw closer to the Hearer of prayer. Drawing close to God is desirable. But are we free to choose our own method of approach? Surely we must seek the approach that pleases God, not our own. Jesus said: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This would preclude using idolatrous images. Jesus further taught: “But the hour will come—in fact it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”—John 4:23, 24.
Can one who is spirit be represented by a material image? No. Regardless of how imposing an image may be, it can never match the glory of God. So an image of God could never be truthful. (Compare Romans 1:22, 23.) Would a person therefore be ‘worshiping in truth’ if he approached God through some fraudulent image?
Jehovah’s Witnesses have helped thousands of individuals forsake idolatrous practices and become ‘the kind of worshipers the Father wants.’ After being shown from the Bible how God views images, many have been moved to eliminate images from their homes and their form of worship. (Compare Deuteronomy 7:25.) True, it has not always been easy for such ones to do so. But they have been moved by a sincere desire to adhere closely to God’s Word the Bible, which exhorts true Christians: “Children, be on your guard against false gods [literally, idols].”—1 John 5:21, footnote.
Unless otherwise marked, all Scripture quotations are from the Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
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Do ‘Icons Never Become Idols’?
“Icon” refers to a specific kind of image, namely, religious paintings venerated by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some are representations of Christ; others represent the Trinity, Mary, “saints,” or angels. Like Roman Catholics, Orthodox theologians justify the veneration of icons as a relative act that passes devotion on to the heavenly one represented. “The icon,” claims Russian theologian, Sergey Bulgakov, “remains only a thing and never becomes an idol or a fetish.”
At the same time, though, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that an icon can bring special benefits to a worshiper who prays in front of it, provided the icon has been “sanctified” by the church. “The rite of the blessing of the icon,” states Bulgakov in his book The Orthodox Church, “establishes a connection between the image and its prototype, between that which is represented and the representation itself. By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible. It is the same with the icons of the Virgin and the Saints; their icons, one may say, prolong their lives here below.”
Furthermore, many icons of Mary are believed to possess miraculous powers. “Although she remains in heaven,” asserts Bulgakov, “she still lives with us the life of our world, suffers with its suffering, and weeps with its tears. She intercedes for the world before the throne of God. She reveals herself to the world in her wonder-working icons.”