Catholics/IMAGES

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Question
how ca u reconcile the use of images in the church and the commandment which forbids us bowing down to any moulded thing of any likeness in Heaven?

Answer
Very easily.

Let's look at the Old Testament command in it's historical context and in it's Biblical context.

Exodus 20: 2-4 I cite below.

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments."

In it's Biblical context You will immediately notice that the prohibition against images appears in the context of the "Ten Commandments."  Furthermore the context of the prohibition appears within the first commandment prohibiting the worship of alien gods.  Overall God is commanding the Hebrew people to worship Him and Him alone--the prohibition against the use of images is that the Hebrew people should not bow down and worship them.  

Historically The Hebrew people prior to their encounter with the God of Abraham would have been influenced by Pagan customs.  The pagans created images because they believed through the creation of the image they could control the god or gods represented.  That is the immediate historical context in which this prohibition occurs.  In other words---God is telling them two things:

1) Do not make a graven image and bow down to it
2) Do not make a graven image and try to control me through the image.

The command is not an ABSOLUTE prohibition against the use of images as an AID to worship and prayer of the one true God.  We know this because in Exodus 25:17-22 God (after having just prohibited the use of images) turns around and orders the Hebrew people to CREATE AN IMAGE!

Exodus 25:17-22 I cite below:

17 “Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites."

Notice God orders the Hebrew people to create an image of angels and God is very precise with not only this command but his directions for the construction of the Ark.  

Obviously it is not so much images that God has a problem with--but the INCORRECT/MISUSE of images that God has a problem with.

When we look in the New Testament Jesus is called "The image of the unseen God."  Jesus himself is an image.  Colossians 1:15 "The Son is the image of the invisible God the first born over all creation."

When we look at the Old Testament prohibition against images part of the historical context of this prohibition stems from the fact that God Himself had not yet taken on flesh.  God was unseen.  No one could see the face of God and live.  However with the Word becoming Flesh (The Incarnation) God is now seen.  God is now visible.  We can look upon the face of God.  In short it is the Incarnation that allows the creation of images of God for use in worship as an AID to worship and an AID to prayer.

For Catholics images are like a picture.  They help us call to mind the person represented and their life.  Catholics do not worship the image itself (Catholics are not stupid) and Catholics do not believe the images have any power. (Again Catholics are not stupid.) If an image is blessed and treated with reverence it is not because the image itself is through to have power but because through the blessing the image is now associated with the redemptive power of Christ.  The image therefore becomes a means of Grace and blessing.  In other religions God is believed to dwell in the image. Catholics do not believe this either.  

Catholics treat the images reverently because of what the image represents.  It is not unlike yourself if you have a prized picture of your mother or father or grandparents.  How would you feel if someone took those pictures (images of your loved ones) and dishonored them in some way?

Catholics use images as an AID to worship of God and an AID to prayer.  Catholics do not bow down to images as if the image itself were God or as if the image itself had power.  Catholics do not take the image and try to control it as if through the making of the image Catholics believed they can control God.  for these reasons and for the ones I explained above Catholics are not violating the true SENSE in which the prohibition against images should be understood.

In the 6-700's a heresy arose in the Church called "Iconoclasm."  This was a heresy that effected the Eastern half of the Church more so than the West.  In the East many of the bishops were smashing images calling them unbiblical.  However when you look at the historical context in which this heresy appears you immediately find out that the heresy was more POLITICALLY motivated than theologically motivated.  At that time the Muslim religion was expanding and conquering Christian lands.  The Muslims do not use images in their worship and they do not image God or the Prophet Muhammad. The emperor in order to try and keep the peace pressured the Eastern bishops to do away with images.  Interestingly enough--images of the EMPEROR were still allowed. Eventually a council was called to deal with this crisis.  This was the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.  The Eastern Orthodox to this day recognize this council and celebrate it on the First Sunday of Lent in a feast called "The Triumph of Orthodoxy."    

Finally---last I checked--the cross is an image.  Protestants seem to have no problem using that image in their worship--suggesting that Protestants themselves implicitly know the command is NOT an absolute prohibition against images.  

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Father Dave Bechtel

Expertise

I am a Catholic priest in good standing and in active ministry in the Diocese of Scranton PA. I can answer most any question about the Catholic Faith, however my area of specialization is Systematic Theology. Systematic Theology is a branch of theology that focuses on the fundamental tenants of the Faith and the Dogmas of the Faith. I have specialization on the Reformation and Catholic vs. Protestant theology/issues and answering Protestant challenges to the Faith.

Experience

I was ordained in June of 2008. Since that time the thrust of my ministry has been specialized. In my first assignment I was an assistant pastor. A year later I was sent to work in education. I spent six (6) years in education and have now assumed my first pastorate. While education was the thrust of my ministry, nevertheless I continued to have a hand in parish ministry, hospital chaplaincy and prison chaplaincy. Now that I am out of education I will obviously be focusing more on parish work than specialized ministry. I have two years of formal Clinical Pastoral Education and prior to ordination I successfully pursued Board Certification for health care ministry through the NACC. My certification needs to be renewed and I plan to seek dual certification in health care ministry (NACC and APC) when I renew my certification. I have a breadth of experience working with Protestant ministers and collaborating with them to achieve the goals of hospital pastoral care and chaplaincy. These ministers run the spectrum from the liberal to the conservative.

Education/Credentials
Bachelors of Science-- University of Scranton PA Masters of Arts Theology--- Saint Mary's Seminary and University Baltimore MD Masters of Divinity--- Saint Charles Borremeo Seminary Philadelphia PA Board Certified Chaplain (up for renewal)

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