Did the Church condemn the use of images as idolatrous in the past?

By November 11, 2014 10 Comments

Full Question

Why has the Church approved the use of images when the Church Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 753) condemned them as being “idolatrous and heretical, a temptation to the faith that originated with the devil”; and when Popes Gregory III and Constantine V (in 740) also condemned them?


You have been misled about basic historical facts by anti-Catholic propaganda. Some clarifications:
The Council of Chalcedon was held in the fifth century, not the eighth, and did not deal with sacred images at all. There was a synod around 753 that did deal with images, but in the first place, it was held in Constantinople, not Chalcedon. In the second place, while this synod was convened by a Constantine V, and while this Constantine V did oppose sacred images, he wasn’t a pope, or even a clergyman—he was the Byzantine emperor. There has never been a Pope Constantine V; only one pope has been named Constantine, and he died in 715.
The pope in 740 was St. Gregory III. It is emphatically not true that he condemned sacred images—on the contrary, he vigorously defended them. In 731 Gregory III held a synod in Rome which condemned the image-breaking heresy of Iconoclasm. In fact, Gregory III made a special point of honoring images and relics as a way of protesting Emperor Constantine V’s iconoclast efforts and persecution of those who honored sacred images. (Many devout Christians were put to death for refusing to desecrate sacred images.)
As for the so-called synod of Constantinople convened by Emperor Constantine, even before it was held it had already been rejected by the reigning pope as well as the Eastern patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. These patriarchs, together with the pope, refused to attend the emperor’s synod or to send legates in their places, since it was clear that the synod was merely a tool of the emperor and that the bishops were expected to simply endorse his iconoclast agenda.
Less than 50 years later, the seventh ecumenical council, Nicea II, which upheld the use of sacred images, rebutted this “mock synod” or “pseudo-synod.”
The erroneous “facts” you mention can easily be “documented” from numerous anti-Catholic websites, all of which are merely repeating claims they’ve read from other anti-Catholics without having verified them first. In their zealous hostility against the Church, anti-Catholics often ride roughshod over the most basic historical and theological points, and constant vigilance is necessary to straighten out the facts before you can even begin to address underlying theological errors.
If you’re reading arguments from someone who thinks that Constantine V was a pope rather than an emperor, or that Gregory condemned sacred images rather than defending them, don’t rely on anything that individual says. Do some homework, and don’t just take claims like this at face value.


  • Akah says:

    After reading through your answer to the question about graven images, I found some truth and good historic facts from what you wrote. Now, I want you to throw more light on the issue of BOWING DOWN to these graven images. Making images is not the problem I suppose, but the issue of bowing down to them. I think this is complete Idolatry when we read Exodus 20:5-6. Must people bow down to images to show their worship and honour and obedience to God?

    • .The word idolatry comes from two words “idol” and “latria”. Latria is a Latin word which means adoration. Catholics gave “latria” ALONE to God. The saints are not idols and the kind of act we give to them and their images is called in Latin as “Dulia” which means veneration. In case you do not know, St. Paul already gave the definition of idol, he said, “We know that an IDOL is without existence…” (1Cor 8:4 CCB). Our Saints are real people with real existence therefore they are not idols. Most of all, Catholics do not consider them as gods but fellow citizens in heaven who already have gone before us. We love and praise them because their lives are worthy of emulation. St. Paul said, “I implore you, dearly beloved, do as I do” (Gal. 4:12). By the way for your information, the term idol does not only mean graven images. It could mean “money” (Eph. 5:5) or immoral acts, “Therefore, put to death what is earthly in your life, that is immorality, impurity, inordinate passions, WICKED DESIRES and GREED WHICH IS A WAY OF WORSHIPING IDOLS” (Col. 3:5 emphasis mine). You said, [“I saw some Catholics bowing on an image of a particular saint and they rub their towels on it.. Isn’t it idolatry or worshiping saints…?? “] I answer: bowing is not idolatry just like idolatry is not about “bowing per se” but “bowing and serving other gods”. It is incorrect and unbiblical to apply your understanding of bowing as idolatry because the Bible tells us that it is not the case. Abraham bowed to angels, “when he looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them. He (Abraham) BOWED to the ground” (Gen. 18:2). He even bowed to some people, “Abraham rose and BOWED to the Hittites, the people of the land” (Gen. 23:7). Jacob bowed to Esau, “He himself went on before them and bowed to the ground seven times until he came near his brother (Esau)” (Gen 33:3). Though there are several biblical examples, the above are some of it and these are enough proofs that this gesture is not equivalent to idolatry. With regards to touching the Images of Saints (with or without handkerchief, towel, etc.), I hope that you understand that in the Bible, “holiness” and “un-holiness” are contagious. if you touch something holy you will be holy and if you touch something unclean you will be unclean or guilty (Read Lev. chap. 11 & 15). The Bible tells us not only about the ugliness but the beauty of touch. Touching something holy can make you or something holy, “For seven days you are to repeat the atonement sacrifice for the altar and consecrate it. So it (altar) will be extremely holy, and WHATEVER TOUCHES IT WILL BECOME HOLY” (Exo. 29:37). The ark of the covenant (statement) with the images of Cherubim over it is also holy, “With it you are to anoint the Tent of Meeting and the ARK OF THE STATEMENT… in this way you shall consecrate them and they will remain extremely holy; and WHATEVER TOUCHES THEM WILL BECOME HOLY” (Exo. 30:26;29-30). When a dead man touches the bones of prophet Elisha, he miraculously got resurrected, “It happened that at that time some people were burying a dead man, when they saw the Moabittes. So they quickly threw the body into the grave of Elisha, and then fled to safety. But as soon as the man’s body touched the bones of Elisha, the man revived and stood on his feet” (2Kings 13:21). So touch is just a physical contact with something. It has nothing to do with idolatry. However holiness can be radiated through “touch” and if God allows, it can also be an experience of miracle. In touching the images of Saints, we associate ourselves to them, the holy ones of God and at the same time, we also bear in our minds the message of St. Paul to keep ourselves from the unclean, “…they will keep the appearance of piety, while rejecting its demands. Keep away from such people” (2Tim 3:5),Truly, touching holy can make you holy while touching unclean can make you unclean.

  • Jeff says:

    Hi Akah. Regarding your question, we must be cautious of a condition called anachronism. This refers to the taking of a situation present in one culture and dropping it into another culture where the same situations do not apply. The example you present from Exodus refers properly to the worship of false gods apart from the true God of Abraham. The golden calf was proclaimed to be “the god that brought you out of Egypt”. The chosen people sacrificed to this calf and were continually being cautioned against worshiping as the Egyptians did, or Canaanites, Moabites, etc. This is not the same cultural situation that we see today where many images are cast as visible reminders of One,true God.
    You also mentioned postures such as bowing. These postures, in and of themselves, are meant to remind us of reverence due to God. But these postures are also often culturally influenced (bowing to each other is common in Japan, for example, but there is no confusion about worship). The only true form of worship that is specific to God alone is Sacrifice. And while the cultures in Exodus and beyond made sacrifices to false gods, Catholics make no such sacrificial offerings to statues and icons. As a weak human, I am grateful for the images; we are sensory beings and influenced greatly by what we see, hear, etc. I would rather surround myself with images meant to inspire thoughts of God and a pursuit of holiness, than to be surrounded by what the world has to offer and be drawn to a path of destruction.

  • Bradley Tarr says:

    I suggest you read St. John of Damascus. He wrote 3 treatises on the defense of the divine images in the 700s, when all this iconoclasm was going on. Trust me, read his writings. They will answer any and all questions you have.

  • anettemcclellan2014 says:

    The Second Commandment
    “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor 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 generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

    • wfcoaker says:

      John 16:13. We venerate images, not because the image is somehow “divine”, but because it preserves a correct understanding of the Incarnation. Without it, we run the risk of not understanding Who Jesus is, what He taught, and what He came to do, and fall into the pit of thinking He came to be the victim in some bizarre act of Divine suicide/infanticide in which an innocent person dies in order to buy off a corrupt judge into letting the criminals go free. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a heresy that has its roots in the extreme Christian Iconoclasm.

    • Bocephus says:

      Annette McClellan: How do you reconcile your reading of that part of the 10 commandments with these commandments from God that follow shortly after?
      “They shall make an ark of acacia wood… And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.” –Exodus 25:10,18-20
      “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” — Numbers 21:8-9
      Or Solomon’s temple– made to the specifications given by God?
      “In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.” — 1 Kings 23-29
      So please explain, if the intention of the passage you quote above is for the Israelites to not carve images of anything ever, then why does God keep telling the Israelites to carve depictions of things from the Heavens above and the earth beneath? That commandment, taken out of context, simply makes no sense in light of God’s subsequent commands to His people.
      However, when you look at Exodus 20:4-6 IN CONTEXT, it makes perfect sense. Protestants make the mistake of separating this out into its own 2nd Commandment, which doesn’t stand to reason. Apart from the many times God gives commands that would contradict this (if it were indeed a stand-alone commandment), it simply doesn’t stand up to the same stature as the other commandments. They are all big-picture, broad life lessons: Honor God, keep one day a week holy for Him, don’t kill, don’t envy, don’t lie, don’t cheat, and… don’t carve statues? It simply doesn’t fit.
      To take it a step further, the Hebrew word translated as “graven image” is “pesel,” which indeed literally translates as “hewn image.” But from its use in other texts it’s clear that the word has a wider variety of meanings, and is often used in contexts where it is clearly intended to specifically mean “idol.”
      So now let’s look at Exodus 20:4-6 when (correctly) joined with Exodus 20:2-3, and when “pesel” is more accurately rendered as “idol”: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation, but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
      Now it all makes sense, it all ties together. God is not forbidding us from making carvings– if He were, then why did He order the Jews to do exactly that?– but He is ordering us not to have false idols, whether they are carved statues or, as other posts indicate, money, greed, power, etc. This becomes especially clear when we look at what became of Moses’ God-ordained bronze serpent: King Hezekiah… “did what was right in the Lord’s sight… and smashed the bronze serpent Moses had made, BECAUSE UP TO THAT TIME THE ISRAELITES WERE BURNING INCENSE TO IT.” -2 Kings 18:3-4 (emphasis added). So we see God ordering the Jews to make a graven image– one that is a symbol of God’s power– only to have them destroy it when it becomes an idol to them, when they see the power coming from the statue, and not from God.
      Catholics would agree. We DO NOT worship statues– in fact, we have been specifically prohibited from doing so for centuries (see the Council of Trent, 1535, for one). We do, however, use statues as reminders of God’s presence and power, in ways very similar to those commanded by God to the Israelites.
      Thanks for reading, and I would appreciate any additional thoughts defending your more narrow reading of the text in light of the clear Biblical evidence against it. God bless you, and be well.

  • ddo1961 says:

    the rcc is indeed of carving and using graven images. It is the roman catholic church that has been misled. Billions of souls are on the way into the lake of fire because of believing pagan lies and deception. “Come out of her my people” (Revelation 18:4) referring to the great w**** of babylon, the rcc

  • Jack Zok says:

    Years ago I visited Sri Lanka and India. I had never seen hindu’s worship their idols before, with incense etc and offerings. It struck me then that the use of images, though emotionally useful in bringing ideas to life, actually confused the holy and divine with normal life, making things special which were not, and things that should be dealt with as if they were not important. Jesus preached transformation of the heart with love shown through actions, yet when this is merely ceremonies and which images or statues you bow before, the form of religion is the same, and the real message is lost in between. Religion can be recognising there is value in what is being represented, but never knowing what it is.
    The problem is this can be having the form of a religion but no reality. Is that what christianity really is to most people?

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