Ask Ivor

Mary asks:

"Why do Christians have statues of Jesus and the saints when the Ten Commandments say not to?"

Twice in history this question generated a lot of heat. By the 8th century, Christian art was well established—paintings, mosaics, sculpture, architecture, stained glass—but critics arose who argued that representational art was a transgression of God's second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any 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" (Ex 20:4). A number of the Byzantine emperors took up this cause, and many pieces of church art were destroyed by these iconoclasts (Greek eikonoklastes, image-destroyers). The defenders of images argued back that the second commandment only prohibited the worship of images: "You shalt not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Ex 20:5).

After more than a century of controversy, the pro-icon group prevailed, and the issue remained settled until the 16th century, when Protestant reformers like Calvin and Zwingli resurrected iconoclasm, calling for the destruction, or at least removal, of religious images and pictures, and for the whitewashing of biblical scenes painted on church walls. (Reformers also condemned relics, crosses, candles, organs, choirs, amulets, holy water, and anything else they interpreted as coming between the individual believer and God—such as priestly forgiveness of sins, indulgences, purgatory, transubstantiation, pilgrimages, monastic asceticism, and prayers to the saints.) The Catholic Church defended its use of representational art by teaching that images are only symbols of the prototypes to whom veneration is addressed; the images themselves are not worshiped.

Today, Christendom enjoys a largely relaxed attitude toward religious art, but the Eastern Orthodox Church does prohibit sculpture, and some Protestant denominations maintain an iconoclastic simplicity.

The second commandment does not, indeed, prohibit representational art; it prohibits idolatry. (Subsequent to handing down the Ten Commandments, God instructed Moses to produce images of a serpent (Nu 21:8), and of cherubim (Ex 25:18), and there was nothing idolatrous about these graven images.) Idolatry is the worship of false gods, and in Moses' day this included mountains, springs, rivers, trees, the sun, bulls, cows, cats, baboons, crocodiles, and snakes—many of these deities were commonly represented by stone or wood statues, thus the wording of the the second commandment.

In New Testament times, the concept of idolatry was expanded to include greed (see Eph 5:5 and Col 3:5). Jesus stated it succinctly: "You cannot serve both God and Money."