There is no consensus on the interpretation of Exodus 20:4-6. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians maintain that these verses refer not to Christian icons but pagan idols. According to this interpretation, the prohibition in verses 4-6 is profoundly related to that in verses 1-3. Both passages deal with idolatry. The Protestant tradition interprets these verses as prohibiting iconic worship, that is, the use of icons and images in Christian worship.
Consequently, in Protestant churches religious icons and images are not used in worship. Even the crucifix, which is the cross with a figurine of Christ, is not allowed in some Protestant churches. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, religious images, icons and art play a significant role in worship. These religious images and icons are not only used for pedagogical purposes, they are also venerated.
The use of images in worship became an issue of controversy at two significant points in the history of the Church. The first took place in the eighth century, when some theologians rejected the use of icons and images altogether because of abuses and excesses in the Church. The iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century, which, interestingly, was also sparked by the Moslem’s strict prohibition against the use of images in Islam, lasted nearly a century.
The Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (A.D. 787), however, endorsed the use of images in Christian worship. The Council stressed that ‘In the icon, we recognise nothing other than an image representing a likeness of the prototype … This is the only reason why it participates in the likeness, and that is the reason why we venerate it and call it holy’. In other words, the icon only represents the reality it depicts, and should not be mistaken for that reality.
The second period in which iconic worship became controversial was the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Reformers like John Calvin argued that to use images in Christian worship is to transgress the second commandment that prohibits the worship of graven images. The evangelical churches followed in the footsteps of the Reformers in banning the use of images in worship.
Were the Reformers right in categorically prohibiting the use of images in Christian worship? If the Reformers’ interpretation of Exodus 20:4-6 is correct, then not only are Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians guilty of transgressing the second commandment, so were the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council.
The early Fathers of the Church defended the use of icons in Christian worship on the basis of the Incarnation. The incarnate Christ, according to the Apostle Paul, is the ‘image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossian 1:15). The Incarnation, therefore, according to theologians like St John of Damascus (650-730) and St Theodore the Studite (759-826), justifies and postulates the icon, for in the man Jesus, God has presented an image of himself. Thus, iconic worship testifies to the Church’s faith in the Incarnation, for, as St Theodore the Studite has so clearly argued, ‘If He [the Son} could not be represented by art, this would mean that he was not born of a Mother who can be depicted, but was born of the Father and that He was not Incarnate. But this contradicts the whole divine economy of our salvation’.
According to the Fathers, in assuming our flesh in the incarnation, God the Son penetrates as well as regenerates human flesh so that we too become theophoric – temples and bearers of God (1 Cor 3:17; 15:49 and 2 Cor 6:6). By his Resurrection, prefigured in the Transfiguration, Christ purifies, sanctifies and transfigures all matter, which can now be used to represent him. But in using material images in this way, the believer does not worship the images, but the God they represent. St John of Damascus stresses this in his defence of iconic worship in On the Divine Images: ‘I do not adore matter itself, I adore the Creator of all matter who became matter for my sake, who deigned to inhabit matter (our flesh) and who through matter accomplished my salvation’.
The Fathers of the Church, in defending the use of icons in worship, highlight an inconsistency in the theology and practice of the iconoclasts. In prohibiting any depiction of the divine through religious art and images, the iconoclasts failed to see that the Gospel itself is a ‘verbal icon’ of Christ. In pointing this out, St Theodore the Studite wrote in Refutation:
Nowhere did Christ order that even the briefest word be written about him. Nonetheless, His image was sketched in writing by the apostles and preserved for us to the present. So, what is represented on the one hand with paper and ink, is likewise represented on the other with various colours and different materials.
What iconoclasts often miss is the worldliness of Christian worship. By this I mean that Christian worship, although a spiritual activity cannot be severed from the material world to which Christians belong. As embodied creatures, Christians relate to God through the things of the world. This means that worldly things such as words, concepts, architecture, music, art, symbolic actions, religious symbols, liturgical colours, altar, books, bread, wine and water can enrich our worship of God. Religious art, images and icons also can be used meaningfully in worship. The second commandment does not prohibit the use of images in worship, but simply warns us against confounding these images with God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.