Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?


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 Eastern 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 and golden cherubim.

Continue reading "Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?" by Richard Ostling.

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