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In Defense of Icons (Pt. 1)

There are many aspects of the Catholic faith that are misunderstood and are thus maligned, attacked, and degraded as superstitious or blasphemous. Doctrines surrounding Mary, The Mother of God, and the saints immediately come to mind. Protestants will often deride Catholics as turning man into idols, and by extension, will also deride our long-standing traditions surrounding holy images. The relationship between saints and icons is a very tight one; it is not without reason that St. John of Damascus says “If [the saints] are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ and partakers of the divine glory… how shall not the friends of Christ be also fellow partakers on earth of his glory?”[1] This extends to Christ Himself; the Crucifix is the most recognized image associated with the Catholic Church and yet it is constantly misunderstood and maligned. Often, these misunderstandings being with an incorrect understanding of image, idol, and of the commandments of God.

The Catholic Church has always held, and will always hold that the worship of idols is a terrible offense against God. The teachings of Sacred Scripture are absolute: “the Lord your God is one Lord,”[2] “you shall not make any carved likeness, of anything in heaven above or on the earth below,”[3] and “all who venerate carved[images] shall be put to shame.”[4] It would be impossible for anyone to furnish an image capable of depicting God as “you have not seen his form.”[5] Indeed, the absolute nature of this commandment is undeniable and not up for discussion.

Knowing this, why would God issue a command such as this to Moses:

"Make me an ark of acacia wood… give it a covering and a lining of gold…then make pools of acacia wood, gilded over, and pass them through the rings on the sides of ark… In this ark thou wilt enshrine the written law I mean to give to thee. Make a throne, too…and two cherubs of pure beaten gold…with their wings outspread to cover the throne… from that throne of mercy, between the two cherubs that stand over the ark and its records, my voice shall come to thee.[6]"

Furthermore, how would we address the actions of King Solomon: “Solomon awoke… when he came back to Jerusalem, he stood before the ark that bears record of the Lord’s covenant, and brought burnt sacrifice, and made welcome offerings,”[7]

Or King David: “[s]o back [David] went, and brought the ark of God away from Obededom’s house, into David’s keep… no sooner had the bearers of the ark gone six paces on their journey, than he sacrificed the bull and a ram with it… [David] went dancing with all his might, there in the Lords presence.”[8]

Unless we are willing to condemn David and Solomon[9] as idolaters, it seems like they are offering praise worthy reverence to an image and likeness. One might also suggest that God was self-contradictory in His command, but that’s not something worth considering.[10]

Both Solomon and David offer special veneration to the Ark of the Covenant, as evidenced by their deep reverence towards the Ark and the fact that the Ark is the center of their actions; the authors of these books are explicitly drawing attention to Ark as the center of the passages. Veneration, understood properly, “is a symbol of submission and honor.”[11] There many kinds of veneration; if one were to meet a distinguished person, say a president or king, one would hopefully act in a manner appropriate to someone of high standing. In the Bible, the brothers of Joseph gave Joseph reverence due to his position,[12] and the Psalms often focus on creation as a means of praising The Lord. Above all other forms of veneration, is the veneration God alone deserves and ought to receive. That does not mean, however, that these other forms of veneration are illicit, inappropriate, or even sinful. In fact, it would seem not giving appropriate veneration is offensive to God.[13]

It appears that the commandments of God are not as obviously against the traditions of the Catholic faith; the traditions of the Catholic faith can comfortably point to the Bible as, at the very least, being impartial towards the tradition of holy images, if not outright support. Still, there might be some who claim that the situations described above are unique, as they were given to us by God: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself”[14] and “[the crucifix] displays [Christ’s] human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength […] the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display.”[15] It seems that the concern now concerns the inability of humanity to faithfully render an image of worthy of what it attempts to depict.

[1] St. John of Damascus, Three Treaties on the Divine Images, Popular Patristic Series, 34. [2] Duet 6:4 [3] Duet 5:8 [4] Ps 96:7 [5] Jn 5:37 [6] Ex 25: 10-22. I have eliminated most of the measurements The Lord gave to Moses, along with the instructions surrounding placement for the sake of brevity. [7] 1 Kings 3:15 [8] 2 Samuel 6:12-14 [9] Solomon would later on succumb to the worship of idols, but not at the moment we’re discussing. [10] See St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, 28-29. [11] St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, 27. [12] Gen 42:6 [13] 2 Sam 6:7 [14] Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Larger Catechism, Question 109. [15] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 46.

Part 2 of this series will discuss the response of the Catholic tradition and how those concerns have been addressed in the past.

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