Is the Second Commandment Obsolete?
Good News Magazine
February 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 2
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Is the Second Commandment Obsolete?
D Paul Graunke  

EARLY CHRISTIANS were reserved in explicitly depicting Christ, choosing instead such symbols as the lamb.

   In 1956 Hollywood made a highly successful movie on the life of Moses and the emancipation of ancient Israel called The Ten Commandments. If religious epics are ever again in vogue, they ought to make a movie on the history of the post-New Testament era of church history and call it The Ten Amendments.
   It would depict how Christianity through the centuries has paid much lip and liturgical service to the Ten Commandments, while often amending, revising, or wholesale abandoning them in doctrine and actual practice. Naturally, Hollywood would concentrate on lapses of the commandments concerning murder and adultery.
The Real Second Commandment. But for the purposes of this article we will concentrate on a less sensational commandment — the second. What does the second say? Well, that depends on what you read. For there are two listings of the Ten Commandments in circulation. In many catechisms and religious booklets you will find the second commandment listed as "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
   But if you go back to the authentic source — the Bible — this is what you will read: "You shall not make 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; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:4-6).
   If you can't imagine why some denominations avoid or gloss over the real second commandment, just visit one of their cathedrals or churches, or read some of their literature. You will find plenty with images of Deity.
And again... God had more to say on the subject of images after the lawgiving at Sinai. In case anyone in Moses' day missed the point, God told the Israelites nearly 40 years later: "Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven" (Deut. 4:15-19).
   And in Deuteronomy 5, the command against idolatry is repeated again with the rest of the Ten Commandments.
   Two "don'ts," then, are contained in the commandment: 1) don't make images to represent Deity; 2) don't use images of anything, whether God, man, or beast for purposes of worship and veneration.
   But today — in spite of God's "don'ts" about images — there are many professing Christians who do incorporate images in their worship. Why — how — this has come to pass, would, of course, be one of the subjects of the proposed religious epic.
Act I: Doctrinal Darkness. Our imaginary movie would open sometime between 70 and 120 A.D. Unfortunately, historical material for the scripts would be sparse. Historians use metaphors like "curtain" or "dark cloud" to describe the dearth of information about this period. We know something about the persecutions the Church suffered, so there could be an obligatory scene of the Christians versus the lions while we wait for doctrinal developments. The scene would have to be a long one, as we have to rely on much speculation and inference drawn from few facts in constructing a doctrinal scenario for the first 100 years or so after the Apostolic era.
   A number of Protestant scholars maintain that for the first three centuries, at any rate, the Church was as a whole shy of making images and pictures of Christ and was certainly opposed to using them for veneration. They are fond of quoting statements made by a number of the "church fathers" to prove their point.
   But Catholic and Orthodox scholars insist that "the practice of veneration of images has a distinctive and continuous tradition in Christian History" ("Images, Veneration of," New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, p. 370). That the first Christians had any sort of prejudice against images is labeled as fiction. They appeal to archaeology for support. "The use of images in early Christian worship cannot now be reasonably questioned in view of the modern discoveries of archaeology" (ibid., p. 371).
   Who is right?
   From the evidence available it seems the truth lies somewhere in between. The early centuries of church history are difficult to unravel. The young faith was threatened from without by persecution and sometimes divided within. No single ecclesiastical authority prevailed or was universally recognized.
   In regard to images, archaeological investigations of the catacombs do indicate that Christians were portraying scenes from the Bible as early as the second century A.D. The subjects depicted were Old Testament patriarchs and events and New Testament saints and martyrs. But portraits of Christ or of God are conspicuously absent. Instead "Christians... at first represented Christ by symbol alone, the fish being one of the most important. The Greek letters of the word "fish" are the initial letters of the words 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior'... The lamb as a symbol was [also] used in early Christian art" (Katherine Morrison McClinton, Christian Church Art through the Ages, p. 13).
   It should also be pointed out that while images of biblical heroes and symbols of Christ were made, any claim that they were actually used in veneration and worship is largely a matter of inference and not hard historical fact. "Very little was written about the veneration of images during the early period of Christianity," admits the New Catholic Encyclopedia. "... Little is known about the doctrinal basis of veneration as practiced by Christians at that time" (vol. 7, p. 371).
Act II: A Double Standard? By the third century A.D., however, explicit depictions of Christ were being made. And within another century images of Christ, saints and martyrs were commonly used for veneration.
   At the same time image veneration was spreading among Christians, church fathers and theologians. were vigorously condemning pagan idolatry in the strongest terms.
   At first glance this would seem to be an incongruous, hypocritical posture. But to them, there was no contradiction, no double standard involved. It was all a matter of terminology. To them the word "idol" had several different meanings.
   1) An idol could be an image that was considered to be an actual god with miraculous powers.
   2) An idol could be an image representing a false god.
   3) An idol could be an image representing the true God that was used for edification and instruction — but not for veneration.
   4) An idol could be an image representing the true God that was used for veneration.
   Usually, early Christian theologians had definitions 1 and 2 in mind when writing about idolatry. They didn't consider images of the true God to be idolatry. Yet some philippics were so sweeping and all-inclusive in their comdemnation of images that it seems their authors had the 3rd and 4th definitions in mind, too.
Some Defy the Trend. Take, for example, the second-century church father, Melito. In an apology to Marcus Aurelius, he countered an argument for imagery with these words: 'There are, however, persons who say: It is for the honour of God that we make the image: and in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view.... How can the unseen God be sculptured? Nay, it is the likeness of thyself that thou makest and worshippest."
   Clement of Alexandria (c. 150- 220) condemned pagan idols as nothing more than representations of demons and then asserted in his Protrepticus: "But we [Christians] have no sensible image of sensible matter; but an image that is perceived by the mind alone — God, who alone is truly God."
   Origen (185-c.254) in Contra Celsum, chapter 76, wrote: "'Insane' would be the more appropriate word for those who hasten to temples and worship images or animals as divinities. And they too are not less insane who think that images, fashioned by men of worthless and sometimes most wicked character, confer any honour upon genuine divinities." (Clement and Origen's opposition to art extended beyond the issue of idolatry. They deprecated artisans and artwork as a whole.)
   Tertullian (c. 160-230) took to task those who, seeking an exception to the rule, justified images by pointing to the example of Moses making a brass serpent (Numbers 21). He argued that the second commandment was not nullified by this incident. He concluded, "Make not any likeness in opposition to the Law unless to you, too, God have bidden it" (De Idolatria, chapter 6). He might have added also that Hezekiah destroyed the brass serpent several centuries later because Judah had taken to worshiping it with incense (II Kings 18:4).
   "It is difficult to think that a pagan would have appealed to this incident in the Old Testament," said the English scholar and lecturer Edwin Beven. "Who could it be except a Christian who wanted to find a justification for the making of pictures and images in the Christian Church?" (Holy Images, p. 106.)
Church Fathers Not Unanimous. Two incidents from the fourth century A.D. indicate that while images in the church were then proliferating, there were still those who objected. The famous church historian Eusebius (c. 260-340) rebuked Constantina, sister of Constantine, when she requested from him a picture of Christ. He considered such imagery to violate the second commandment.
   And Jerome preserves a letter dated 394 A.D. written by Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis. In it he records that at Anablatha he saw "an image of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person."
   So there were some who objected to idolatry even when it was baptized in the name of Christianity. The testimony of the early church fathers isn't Linanimous in favor of imagery. But the dissenters were outside of the mainstream of thought on this and other issues. Their words carried little weight, and their arguments were rejected when the doctrine of image veneration was crystallized several centuries later.
Act III: Excess Leads to Iconoclasm. By the eighth century, image worship was quite the religious
If you can't imagine why some denominations avoid or gloss over the real second commandment, just visit one of their cathedrals or churches, or read some of their literature.
rage — particularly in the Byzantine Empire. Images of Christ and innumerable saints multiplied. Rituals, liturgies and ceremonies grew up around them. The icons were even being credited with supernatural powers.
   This state of affairs represented a supreme doctrinal irony for Christianity. As the apostle Paul took great pains to point out in several of his epistles, Christ preached something better than a religion of rituals. He revealed a way of life in which piety didn't have to be — indeed, couldn't be — based upon or measured by ceremonies and physical deeds such as sacrifices and circumcision.
   The concept of righteousness through rituals and ceremonies died with Christ. Unfortunately, down through the centuries, it has been resurrected by men in such forms as the image worship that swept through the Byzantine Empire. Having rejected Old Testament rituals, the image worshipers proceeded to install a ritualistic system of their own making.
   Finally, a reaction set in to the excesses to which image worship was carried. In 726 Byzantine Emperor Leo II began to destroy icons. In 754, the Council of Constantinople, under the aegis of Leo's successor, condemned idols in churches, decreeing that "If anyone ventures to represent in human figures, by means of material colours ... the substance or person of the Word [i.e. Christ] which cannot be depicted, and does not rather confess that even after the Incarnation he [i.e. the Word] cannot be depicted, let him be anathema!"
   But the iconoclasts lacked broad-based popular support in the East. And they had even less support in the West, where image veneration was more restrained anyway. The iconoclastic movement was finally suppressed after the death of Emperor Theophilus in 842.
Act IV: Hermeneutic Hair-splitting. Although ill-fated, the iconoclasts did prod the church into formulating a systematic doctrinal justification for the use of images. One of the staunchest defenders of image veneration during the early years of the iconoclastic uprising was John of Damascus. Although he is not considered a theologian of the first order, his arguments typify the line of reasoning used then — and now — to rationalize image veneration in light of the second commandment.
   John argued for images by appealing to history and the "traditions of the fathers." He declared that veneration of images was a continuous practice from the earliest times. But, as we have seen, there is little evidence either in artifacts or documents to back this claim.
   What about scriptural proof, then? Here John of Damascus bases his case not so much on the Bible — but largely in spite of it! He indulged in some hermeneutic hairsplitting in stating that New Testament Christians were not bound to observe all ten of the Ten Commandments. Christians should observe, said he, those articles that constitute the moral, or natural, law. Thus, following this line of reasoning, adultery remains a sin, as does murder.
   But the second commandment was arbitrarily reckoned to be largely ceremonial — not moral, and hence subject to revision. The command against idolatry has a valid spiritual principle behind it (don't worship false gods — definitions 1 and 2 given earlier). But the' technicalities of the command (no images whatsoever — encompassing definitions 3 and 4) are null and void for Christians worshiping the true God.
   This conclusion was reached in the "spirit" of New Testament theology. Actually they missed the "spirit" of New Testament theology which — as explained earlier — discounts the need of ritualism to be accepted and saved by God. In building their case, they dispensed with the "objectionable" Old Testament ceremonial law only to institute a new ceremonial law of their own!
Image Veneration Defined. A formal doctrine of image veneration was enunciated by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. In effect admitting that matters had gone to an extreme, the council established the theological justification for images and laid down ground rules for veneration.
   They declared that what makes an image an idol depends on what it represents and how it is used. As noted earlier, the church fathers didn't hesitate to condemn pagan idols because they represented false gods at best, or demons, they believed, at worst. But Christians need have no qualms as long as their images represented the true God.
   Undeterred by an overwhelming lack of biblical proof for this distinction between pagan idols and Christian images, the council proceeded to define two kinds of religious worship involving images: 1) adoration due only to the God-head; and 2) respect and worshipful honor accorded to saints and martyrs. Further, the council made clear that the veneration of images is not directed to the image per se — but to the person or deity it represents.
   Thomas Aquinas gave the doctrine of image veneration its fullest explanation five centuries later in his Summa Theologica. The worship due God was called latria, while the homage due to distinguished saints was called dulia. It was again stressed that the worship given an image reaches and terminates in the person or God represented.
   Subsequent to the Reformation, Protestants dispensed with the ritual and rubric surrounding images, particularly of saints. But most continue to sanction images and pictures of God and Christ for religious instruction and edification.
The problem of portraying God the Father is that no one knows what He looks like! "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). And no eyewitness portraits of Christ exist.
Epilogue: God in the Image of Man. End of the movie — but not the argument! Although largely avoiding the pitfalls of ritualistic religion with regard to idols, Protestants still beg the question: Should God and Christ be portrayed at all?
   The problem of portraying God the Father is that no one knows what He looks like! "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18; 5:37). And no eyewitness portraits of Christ exist. The earliest portraits of Christ that we have were made at least a century after His resurrection and ascension. And "Since there are no descriptions in the Bible of what Christ looked like.... each race and each artist sought to represent its or his ideal. Beginning with the classic beardless youth of Roman art, we then have the Byzantine representation with beard and parted hair.... The artists of the fifteenth century sought to represent Christ as He walked among men.... Each artist gives his own interpretation, and thus we have infinite diversity....
   "The Protestant church... rejected the harshness of the crucifix and the Man of Sorrows, but accepted the sentimental, weak, unreal Christs of 19th-century art... which do not correctly interpret the person of Christ or the truths of the Bible. These popular painters have robbed Christ of His strength and made Him a sweet, poetic, nineteenth-century aesthete" (McClinton, op. cit., pp. 15, 123).
   Does artwork — by its very nature highly subjective — really honor and serve Christ? Or are these works only creating a God and Christ after the image and imagination of men?
"In Vain Do They Worship Me." The second commandment, as Shakespeare might say, is "more honored in the breach than in the observance." The veneration of images of divinity rests not on the firm rock of the Bible but the sandy foundation of human reasoning and preference.
   It has led to distorted and unscriptural concepts of God who "we ought not to think... is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17:29).
   Image veneration has also led people to confuse symbol with substance, ritualism with righteousness. What Christ said nineteen centuries ago about another religious rubric he might say today about images.
   "For the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men'" (Matt. 15:6-9).

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Good News MagazineFebruary 1976Vol XXV, No. 2