Idol Worship, Statues in Churches, and the 2nd Commandment

Q. Why has the Catholic church changed the Second Commandment?…set no graven image before me nor the likeness thereoff? Is this , again, adding to the Word of God.

A. You have taken a phrase out of context from Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments. Let’s take a look at the whole commandment first—in context. This is not adding to the Word of God. I will even put a Protestant version and a Catholic version here for you to compare. So that you can plainly see we are not adding or taking away anything from scripture. Since you used KJV I will too.

Protestant: King James Version Ex. 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…

Catholic: Douay-Reims Version 3Thou shalt not have strange gods before me 4 Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. 5Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous..

As you can see the phrase, ” Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven image” is referring to the worship of an idol or statue. It absolutely cannot mean that all statues, of anything, are strictly forbidden in sacred places of worship. What IS forbidden is the worship of these statues. How can I be so sure? Because in the very same book, only five chapters later we find this:

Exodus 25: 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 Testimony, which I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

And where were these two cherubim placed? In the Holy of Holies! In the cult of Israel there was no place more sacred than the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was placed; the very seat of God Most High. And this was the express command of God. Therefore, we KNOW that statues were not forbidden, only and emphatically, their worship.

Later, in Solomon’s temple despite the 2nd Commandment:

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”

As you can see below, the Temple was decorated with many different things in the likeness of things in Heaven and on Earth. The Jews clearly understood that the 2nd Commandment did NOT forbid the creation of art in the likeness of things in Heaven and Earth.

I Kings 7:18 He made pomegranates in two rows19 The capitals … were in the shape of lilies, four cubits [l] high. 20 On the capitals of both pillars, a…were the two hundred pomegranates in rows all around. 22 The capitals on top were in the shape of lilies …24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit …25 The Sea stood on twelve bulls, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east…. its rim was like the rim of a cup, like a lily blossom. …27 He also made ten movable stands of bronze; …between the uprights were lions, bulls and cherubim—and on the uprights as well. … 36 He engraved cherubim, lions and palm trees on the surfaces of the supports and on the panels, in every available space, with wreaths all around. 42 the four hundred pomegranates for the two sets of network (two rows of pomegranates for each network, decorating the bowl-shaped capitals on top of the pillars…44 the Sea and the twelve bulls under it …49 … the gold floral work and lamps and tongs;

The bulls are perhaps the most surprising given the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. But then again they were worshiping the Golden Calf. Catholics do not worship the statues and pictures in our churches or our homes. During all the long ages when most people could not read the Bible they could understand the language of art. The purpose of art in our Churches is instruction. They remind us of the people and events in scripture and Christian history.