Thursday, January 14, 2010

Graven Images

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about graven images.

Q:  Why do so many churches have pictures or statues of Jesus and other Biblical figures when in Exodus 20:4-5, the Bible says, “You shall not make for yourself any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water below the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”?

These verses, and their implications for the life of the Church have been a topic of discussion among Christians for most of the history of Christianity.  They have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways throughout Christian history, and have been used as the basis for widely varying rules regarding the propriety of different types of ecclesiastical art. 

For example, Eastern Orthodox Christians forbid any kind of free-standing, three-dimensional statues in their churches and their worship.  They interpret these verses as only prohibiting statues, but not paintings, drawings, mosaics, carvings, or any other art that is not a free-standing statue.  When Jesus is depicted, this interpretation even allows for this type of representation, called an icon, to be venerated—that is that the person can pray to God “through” the icon while not actually praying “to” it.

Many Christians in the tradition of John Calvin do not allow for any type of depiction of Jesus or God to exist in the spaces where they worship.  Paintings or drawings of scenes from Bible stories are sometimes considered acceptable in one’s home, but are not considered appropriate in a worship space or for devotional use.  Symbols, such as a cross or dove, are typically allowed, but in some very strict traditions, even these are avoided.

In Catholic and Lutheran traditions, three dimensional art depicting Jesus, and even the saints, is extremely common.  In the Catholic tradition, these sculptures, particularly of Mary and Jesus, may even be treated in a worshipful manner with acts such as kneeling and bowing before them, especially if they are reported to be connected to a miraculous event.  In Lutheran traditions, this is not the case, but in some circumstances Lutherans may bow toward the crucifix (a cross which includes a carving of Jesus’ body) out of respect for Jesus, but with the understanding that they are not worshipping the crucifix itself.

While the first look at this passage might seem to condemn many practices that occur in churches today, a closer look at the precise wording reveals that the meaning is much more precise than it might appear at first glance.

First, this passage addresses the depiction of created things “in the heavens above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water below the earth.”  Because God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are invisible, it would not be possible to depict them in art other than by symbol (such as a bright light for the Father or a dove for the Holy Spirit), and to do so should not be attempted.  To depict Jesus in art during Old Testament times would have been similarly impossible, since He had not yet become man and therefore had not yet been seen.  Today, however, Jesus has become man and has been seen.  Since He is eternal God and not created, it would not be forbidden to depict Jesus.

Secondly, even though the prohibition in these verses includes depictions of created things, this prohibition only exists if they are to be worshipped.  In many of the world’s religions, especially in ancient times, people would carve or shape a statue of a bird, animal, or mythical creature, and worship it, not just as a representation of an unseen god, but actually as their god. 

To worship any created thing in place of the One True God would be idolatry, regardless whether it was a statue, a painting, or the real thing, but it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to own a statue of George Washington or the mascot of their favorite sports team, paintings of wildlife, or the portraits of their children, as long as they do not worship them.  Likewise, a picture or statue of Jesus is not forbidden by God as long as it we do not worship it.  The matter is not a question of what is depicted or how it is done, but rather it is a question of attempting to visibly portray the invisible God or to worship any created thing in place of God.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues.  You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson
Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

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