Does the Bible’s ban on “graven images” forbid art in church?

Does the Bible’s ban on “graven images” forbid art in church? June 23, 2015


Why don’t Catholics have a problem with the graven images that surround them in church?


Brad is obviously Protestant in his cultural outlook. That is, Catholic and Orthodox churches encourage religious art in church, seen as aids to devotion. Protestants’ policies vary (as on most things!) but they broadly unite with Judaism in limiting visual images in worship settings to avoid any association with idolatry. Some Protestants prohibit all art in sanctuaries. Others allow abstractions and symbols but not human or animal forms. Some may depict Jesus Christ or saints, typically in stained glass, rarely in statues, and never as the objects of veneration. Further, some forbid flags in church to prevent idolatry toward the nation.

The discussion begins with this from the Bible’s venerable Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:8 and summarized elsewhere, e.g. Leviticus 16:1). “Graven image” means a stature or carving, while “any likeness” covers any and all visual representations.

Jewish scholars say the ban applies to art only in worship contexts due to the “bow down” and “serve” phrasing along with the immediately preceding statement that “you shall have no other gods before me.” As Nahum Sarna wrote, it is inevitable that “an image becomes identified with what it represents” and is itself the object of worship. Jews understood the commandment to forbid 1) worship of false gods without images, 2) worship of false gods through images, 3) worship of the images in and of themselves, and 3) worship of the one true God through images.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible remarks that “image-less worship of the Lord made Israel’s faith unique in the ancient world where natural powers were personified and statues of them (animal or human) were worshipped.” Archaeology shows that idolatry and nature-worship were commonplace in neighboring Canaan and Egypt, and biblical history records that this perennial temptation didn’t disappear till the 6th Century Exile in Babylon.

Yet biblical law did not forbid nature art altogether. Joseph Gutmann of Hebrew Union College expressed the consensus view that the commandment’s purpose was “to prohibit images as a focus of worship rather than to eliminate the possibility of art” in secular contexts. However, British Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz said the commandment doubtless hindered ancient Israel’s development of art in general.

And yet the holy precincts of the Jerusalem Temple had bronze bulls nd golden cherubim. A famous modern exception to Jewish tradition is Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows in the synagogue at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, which evoke 12 biblical characters, but the images are highly abstract rather than representational.

The New Testament carried forward the shunning of idols among both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (see Acts 17:16 or 1 Corinthians 10:14). But Catholic historians note that we find paintings of Jesus and the saints from early church history in the catacombs, and surviving statues of Christ as the Good Shepherd and of the apostle Peter as early as the 3d Century A.D. Wide proliferation of statues, carvings, mosaics, and paintings in churches occurred after Christianity became the official faith of the Roman empire in the late 4th Century.

A fierce reaction erupted in the 8th Century when the Emperor Leo III and his allies decided images violated the Ten Commandments, fostered superstition, and were a divisive issue in the realm. Thus ensued the “iconoclasm” (image-breaking) campaign to purify worship. Politicians, priests, and armies rallied to destroy images and persecute their devotees.

The bitter dispute was finally resolved at the Second Council of Nicaea in A.D. 787, which governs Catholic and Orthodox policy to this day. The council’s decree distinguished between full-fledged worship (latreia) that is due to God alone, over against reverence and veneration toward images. It said that though Jesus Christ is God, he “can be presented in his humanity” in churches, along with his mother Mary, angels, saints, the cross, and the Scriptures. Those who taught differently were to be suspended if clergy and excommunicated if lay Christians.

A remarkable extension with assent from the pope occurred in 1512, the completion of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling with its dramatic painting of a bearded God reaching out with a finger to give life to Adam. Soon afterward, a new wave of iconoclasm accompanied the Protestant Reformation. The classic Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, which sought to unite Germany’s Lutheran and Reformed churches but was accepted only by the latter, declares: “God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or serve God through them.”

The Catholic Church’s current catechism teaches that “by becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images,” and reaffirms the Nicaea doctrine that “the honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone.” In Eastern Orthodox sanctuaries, icons are prominent but the paintings or mosaics are highly stylized rather than realistic, and the Orthodox rarely if ever venerate statues. A modern Orthodox catechism explains that “the only true image of God is His Son made man. That is why we venerate His icon and also the icons of the saints who reflect His glory.”

(Islam abhors idolatry and the Sunni tradition generally forbids images of humans even in secular settings, especially of the Prophet Muhammad as seen in recent eruptions. Art in general is often discouraged except for abstract designs and calligraphy, though photography is allowed. Attitutudes toward art have been looser in Shia Islam.)


Browse Our Archives