I'm Catholic, so I subscribe to the idea that constructing and venerating images and statues is permissible and encouraged as a matter of Church dogma. However I must admit that I find it hard to square this position with the explicit command NOT to construct and venerate statues found in scripture.

4 “You shall not make for 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; 5 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 the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

I understand that Christ "fulfilled the law" and as such there are large portions of the law which no longer apply (for example the dietary laws, sacrifice laws, ritual cleanliness laws) while other parts of the law still apply (ie, the moral component of the law).

Does the prohibition against constructing and venerating images fall under the "abrogated" category of the law, or the still in force "moral" component of the law?

I've heard many arguments in defence of venerating images and statues, and I reckon they are all great arguments with much merit and insight, nevertheless I still get the feeling that they can all be easily shot down in one go with a quick quote of the proof text above. It's causing me some annoying cognitive dissonance which I would love to resolve...

Stuff which is great but doesn't really answer my question:

  1. Constructing images of angels, saints and Christ is permissible due to the incarnation. Christ is the perfect image of God/Christ is a "living icon" of God. Therefore by becoming man God demonstrated that it is ok to make images of Divine things. That's all well and good, but it just results in a contradiction with the above scripture quote, unless Christ abrogated that particular commandment.
  2. When we pray to statues, we are not worshipping the statue, we are merely venerating what the statue represents: in other words "veneration given to an image travels to the prototype". Again, I follow the logic, but it still doesn't explain why we are allowed to construct these images in the first place, in light of the explicit prohibition in the 10 commandments.
  3. Elsewhere in scripture God explicitly commands us to construct religious statues. Eg the bronze serpent, the Cherubim on the Ark of the covenant. Therefore the prohibition against statues can't be absolute. That's great, but these things seem to be very specific exceptions to a general rule, and the general rule forbids us from constructing and venerating images.
  4. "Statues of Jesus and Mary are just like having a photograph of your spouse and Children in your wallet. They help you to remember them and keep them in mind". Again I follow the argument and agree in principle, however I still don't understand how we can construct these images in the first place considering we have been explicitly forbidden from doing so, even if the reason for constructing them is as benevolent as desiring a visual reminder of our Lord and Lady.

The only way I can find to square this scripture quote with the Catholic/Orthodox use of images and statues is to assume that this particular commandment was abrogated by Christ after he fulfilled the law. Is that right?


3 Answers 3


This is about correct teaching and the meanings of latria and worship.

  • TL;DR(1): if the bishops do not ensure proper teaching regarding religious images, they let the faithful down. That's where the problem started both during the Iconoclast Movements and during the Reformation where some of your points were raised.
  • TL;DR(2): was a commandment abrogated? Yes and no. (See below).
  • Per the Catholicism tag, answered from that PoV. This is an example of a question where teachings between denominations varies considerably.

The crux of the matter, as far back as the Second Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, was whether proper teaching was getting to the faithful. In some places, it was not since the Iconoclast movement was a response to a trend toward syncretism with pagan Greek religions. That "getting the teaching across effectively" isn't as easy as it sounds. Even after the second council of Nicaea, up to the 11th Century France for example, there was difficulty in effectively communicating the teaching that derived from that Ecumenical Council. (Of course, the Reformation gave two fingers to the teaching, in arguments that resemble your four points).

This question was answered about 1300 years ago.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787 was convened as a direct response to the Iconoclast movement and the destruction of images in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Council's Proclamation

"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands."

For more on the Iconoclast Movement, the Catholic Encyclopedia has an extensive entry.

Confirmed at the Council of Trent, where some of your points were addressed.

From the Council of Trent(page 170 of that link)

The holy Synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that, agreeably to the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and agreeably to the consent of the holy Fathers, and to the decrees of sacred Councils, they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints; the honour (paid) to [Page 234] relics; and the legitimate use of images: teaching them, that the saints, who reign together with Christ, offer up their own prayers to God for men; that it is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, (and) help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is our alone Redeemer and Saviour; but that they think impiously, who deny that the saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invocated; or who assert either that they do not pray for men; or, that the invocation of them to pray for each of us even in particular, is idolatry; or, that it is repugnant to the word of God; and is opposed to the honour of the one mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus; or, that it is foolish to supplicate, vocally, or mentally, those who reign in heaven. Also, that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ,-which bodies were the living members of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost, and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified,--are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men; so that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of saints; or, that these, and other sacred monuments, are uselessly honoured by the faithful; and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid; are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and now also condemns them.

Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or, that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles who placed [Page 235] their hope in idols; but because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.

And the bishops shall carefully teach this,-that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in (the habit of) remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety. But if any one shall teach, or entertain sentiments, contrary to these decrees; let him be anathema.

The Council recognized the problem of incorrect usage, and incorrect teaching, and declared that it was a serious error to teach it wrong, and to do it wrong.

Both councils are cited as sources in CCC 2132

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. the movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

The distinction between "latria" and other "worship" or rendering of honor and veneration

From St Thomas Aquinas: (Question 94)

Reply to Objection 1. Neither in the Tabernacle or Temple of the Old Law, nor again now in the Church are images set up that the worship of latria may be paid to them, but for the purpose of signification, in order that belief in the excellence of angels and saints may be impressed and confirmed in the mind of man.

St Thomas Aquinas, question 81 (cited in the Catechsim (2132) as a source for that article)

Objection 3. Further, seemingly "latria" pertains to religion. Now "latria signifies servitude," as Augustine states (De Civ. Dei x, 1). And we are bound to serve not only God, but also our neighbor, according to Galatians 5:13, "By charity of the spirit serve one another." Therefore religion includes a relation to one's neighbor also.

Reply to Objection 3. Since servant implies relation to a lord, wherever there is a special kind of lordship there must needs be a special kind of service. Now it is evident that lordship belongs to God in a special and singular way, because He made all things, and has supreme dominion over all. Consequently a special kind of service is due to Him, which is known as "latria" in Greek; and therefore it belongs to religion.

All of the above boils down to the following: there is a correct and incorrect use of religious images. Bishops, and the Church in general, must ensure correct teaching or people (as in the olden days) may well pay more respect than is due to something other than God. That can lead to sin, which in the case of teachers falls into "an act of omission" which may lead the faithful into sin via "acts of commission." (St Thomas Aquinas provides commentary of idolatry as superstition and sin in the Summa Theologica). It's a serious matter for the Church to teach the faithful properly.

The key: true worship, latria, is to be reserved for God.

Offering true worship to anything or anyone else violates the Commandment. In that regard, it appears that the Greek Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Reformation descended churches are in general accord.

A commandment abrogated? Yes and no.

As noted in this Catholic Encyclopedia article, the Old testament holds multiple examples of images and physical items associated with worship, referred to by St Thomas Aquinas above, so your dismissal of that factor in point 3 represents a dismissal of 1300 years of Catholic teaching. (No few of the faithful have difficulty with any number of catholic teachings, so you are not alone). The position taken is that the "natural law" was not abrogated in the New Covenant, but the "positive law" was abrogated by the New Covenant.

We note in the first place that the First Commandment (except inasmuch as it forbids adoration and service of images) does not affect us at all. The Old Law — including the ten commandments — as far as it only promulgates natural law is of course eternal. No possible circumstances can ever abrogate, for instance the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Commandments. On the other hand, as far as it is positive law, it was once for all abrogated by the promulgation of the Gospel (Romans 8:1-2; Galatians 3:23-5, etc.; Acts 15:28-9).

Christians are not bound to circumcise, to abstain from levitically unclean food and so on.

The Third Commandment that ordered the Jews to keep Saturday holy is a typical case of a positive law abrogated and replaced by another by the Christian Church. So in the First Commandment we must distinguish the clauses — "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me", "Thou shall not adore them nor serve them" — which are eternal natural law (prohibitum quia malum), from the clause: "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image", etc. In whatever sense the archaeologist may understand this, it is clearly not natural law, nor can anyone prove the inherent wickedness of making a graven thing; therefore it is Divine positive law (malum quia prohibitum) of the Old Dispensation that no more applies to Christians than the law of marrying one's brother's widow.

Since there is no Divine positive law in the New Testament on the subject, Christians are bound firstly by the natural law that forbids us to give to any creature the honour due to God alone, and forbids the obvious absurdity of addressing prayers or any sort of absolute worship to a manufactured image; secondly, by whatever ecclesiastical laws may have been made on this subject by the authority of the Church The situation was defined quite clearly by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. In its seventh session the Fathers drew up the essential decision (horos) of the synod. In this, after repeating the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of former heretics, they come to the burning question of the treatment of holy images. They speak of real adoration, supreme worship paid to a being for its own sake only, acknowledgment of absolute dependence on some one who can grant favours without reference to any one else. This is what they mean by latreia and they declare emphatically that this kind of worship must be given to God only. It is sheer idolatry to pay latreia to any creature at all. In Latin, adoratio is generally (though not always; see e.g. in the Vulgate, 2 Samuel 1:2, etc.) used in this sense. Since the council especially there is a tendency to restrict it to this sense only, so that adorare sanctos certainly now sounds scandalous. So in English by adoration we now always understand the latreia of the Fathers of the Second Nicaean Council.

The commandment in the natural law sense is not abrogated, but old law in the other sense about images (positive law) is abrogated in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. Part of the issue here is that the Catholics have that as all one commandment, while some of the Protestant traditions break it into two and roll the "covets" into one. (If you look at the table here, Greek Orthodox and Reformed break it into 2, while Catholic leaves it as one). This underlines why this question is denomination dependent for the answer.

Note: latreia and latria are Latin forms of Greek (λατρεία).

Experience with this teaching

In the RCIA ministry, we often encountered people whose cultural upbringing was informed by over four centuries of syncretism in Mexico. (I live in Texas). The dialogue typically went like this.

  • RCIA: It is appropriate to show veneration to the saints, with or without the presence of a picture or a statue. {Apostle's Creed, belief in the communion of saints, intercessory prayers, etc}. Worship {in the latria sense} is reserved for God {the Holy Trinity}.
  • Candidate: But I was raised to worship the Virgin.
  • RCIA: We have told you the teaching of the Church. What you actually do, in your heart and in your prayers, is between you and God. We encourage you to follow the teachings of the church.

    At this point, our deacon would usually follow up with this (paraphrased)

    When you pray, and when you go to confession, you should speak from the heart. In your heart there is truth between you and God. If you go to confession, and you try to be untruthful to God ... good luck with that. God knows the truth in our heart.

So what's a Catholic to do?

Reserve true worship, latria, for God (The Holy Trinity). If an image or a statue inspires you to contemplate on the divine, that's fine. Just remember that the image isn't worthy of true worship, only God is.

I recommend reading the extended treatment of "Veneration of Images" at the Catholic Encyclopedia online.

I had brought to my attention by @anonymouswho in comments on another question that the rendering of various Greek terms into 'worship' isn't as simple as I've presented it, and that the Greek proskuneó is a related term for this element of the answer regarding latria.

proskuneós means to bow (properly, to kiss or to do obeisance to), like the Israelites did to YHVH and King David in 1 Chronicles 29:20. Latria is the Latin form of the Greek (λατρεία)(latreuó / latreia) meaing to serve. Like in Luke 4:8

  • "And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship (proskuneó) the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (latreuó)."
  • How did those Virgin worshipers wind up in RCIA? Do they not even consider themselves Catholic to begin with?
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 21:34
  • @PeterTurner Not everyone who was baptized catholic got all of their sacraments. (Some folks were there for marriage/nullity issues, some had been away form the church for a LONG time). RCIA provides a path for Candidates (the baptized who lack certain sacraments) as well as for Catachumens -- those not among the baptized. There was also a custom in Mexico and southern Texas to baptize and confirm kids as infants/small kids, with the result that some Candidates had those two sacraments as infants but (for a variety of reasons, often due to broken homes) had never received communion). Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 21:57
  • "Latreia" and "Latria" are just alternative transliterations of the same Greek word, actually (λατρεία ). If anything, "latria" is more, not less Latin than "latreia", since my impression is that latria is the more common spelling in Latin-language contexts. But neither is a native Latin word.
    – user33366
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 16:08
  • @sumelic Is the difference between latreuó / latreia (λατρεία) a difference in case or person (first person versus third person?) or is one of the other comments referring to a different term going from Greek to Latin? Got it, Greek root to a Latin term. Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 17:36
  • I believe "latreuo" is the verb (first-person singular present, the usual citation form for Greeek verbs) and "latreia" is the corresponding noun.
    – user33366
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 17:47

It seems like you want to embrace Iconoclasm, but cannot bring yourself to leave the Barque of Peter. Unfortunately, however, I cannot write anything not backed up by sources, so I fear it will be most of what you've already read.

First, the Catechism:

2129 The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: “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....” (Deut. 4:15–16) It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. “He is the all,” but at the same time “he is greater than all his works.” (Sir. 43:27–28) He is “the author of beauty.” (Wis. 13:3)

2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim. (cf. Num. 21:4–9; Wis. 16:5–14; Jn. 3:14–15; Ex. 25:10–22; 1 Kings 6:23–28, 7:23–26)

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons — of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images.

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.” ( St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 18, 45: PG 32, 149C; Council of Nicaea II: DS 601; cf. Council of Trent: DS 1821-1825; Vatican Council II: SC 126; LG 67.) The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. the movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 81, 3 ad 3).

Paragraph 2131, in particular, seems to point in the direction you're alluding. Looking over the documents concerning Nicaea II, we read the decree responding to the Iconoclast one proclaimed at Hieria, slightly edited for brevity:

Christ our Lord, who has bestowed upon us the light of the knowledge of himself, and has redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous madness, having espoused to himself the Holy Catholic Church without spot or defect, promised that he would so preserve her (...) But some, not considering of this gift, and having become fickle through the temptation of the wily enemy, have fallen from the right faith; for, withdrawing from the traditions of the Catholic Church, they have erred from the truth (...) because certain priests, priests in name only, not in fact, had dared to speak against the God-approved ornament of the sacred monuments.

And, forsooth, following profane men, led astray by their carnal sense, they have calumniated the Church of Christ our God, which he has espoused to himself, and have failed to distinguish between holy and profane, styling the images of our Lord and of his Saints by the same name as the statues of diabolical idols. (...)

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

In this last paragraph, particularly, point to the use of icons as a manner of asserting that the Incarnation was a concrete event which happened in history. Already this is a real position with lots of adherents in the Church, so it is not an idle speculation.

Also in the documents we find the confession of Bishop Theodosius:

Moreover, I am well pleased that there should be images in the churches of the faithful, especially the image of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the holy Mother of God, of every kind of material, both gold and silver and of every colour, so that his incarnation may be set forth to all men. Likewise there may be painted the lives of the Saints and Prophets and Martyrs, so that their struggles and agonies may be set forth in brief, for the stirring up and teaching of the people, especially of the unlearned.

For if the people go forth with lights and incense to meet the laurata and images of the Emperors when they are sent to cities or rural districts, they honour surely not the tablet covered over with wax, but the Emperor himself. How much more is it necessary that in the churches of Christ our God, the image of God our Saviour and of his spotless Mother and of all the holy and blessed fathers and ascetics should be painted?

The use of images has been an important way to teach the Faith to largely illiterate masses through the centuries. And even then, the people are able to discern the difference between an image and the object it represents, exemplified by the Imperial images mentioned above and which subsist today in the pictures of Kings and Presidents in government offices through the world.

The argument is that the Exodus-era Israelites, influenced by Egyptian polytheism, would automatically associate any images with the idols worshipped by the pagans. They would, then, risk worshipping any images as the Egyptians did. Eventually, as the memory of the details of Egyptian captivity failed, the Lord started allowing the use of some graven images when Solomon built the Temple.

Finally, I remind you that we have images of Jesus and Mary which were not produced by human hands; the Shroud of Turin and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe are two famous examples (arguably the most famous ones). This surely speaks of the admissibility of pictorial representations of Our Lord and His saints...

  • You spend a lot of time arguing that the commandment is not applicable to Catholic veneration, but you don't actually address whether the commandment has been abrogated, which is what was specifically asked. Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 14:15

Let us answer this question, that was tearing me apart until recently, with simple reason-

The law regarding the creation of images was abrogated by Christ Himself. Insofar as he was GOD, by becoming man, he made himself visible to the eye of man. He, God, depicted himself- not in the privacy of one man's dream, nor to a select group, but to the world, publicly and without reservation. He engraved himself in our flesh. Having been made incarnate, he set aside the commandment against graven images, which is lawful for him since he is the lawgiver, and the lawgiver is not bound by the law.

Therefore, to depict Christ according to his humanity is lawful and not a violation of the commandment, for it is to imitate HIM, who made himself visible and tangible and memorable to humanity. If Christ condemns images of himself, then he must condemn himself for being made man, for he violated the law insofar as he made God visible by means of a creaturely medium- the flesh.

  • This answer could be improved by citing sources. In any case, this is basically a restatement of point 1 in the question. Also, it only really applies to images of Jesus -- not to saints and angels.
    – Null
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 19:14

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