And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
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:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
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Idolatry is a pejorative term for the worship of an idol or a physical object such as a cult image as a god, or practices believed to verge on worship, such as giving honour and regard to created forms. In all the Abrahamic religions idolatry is strongly forbidden, although views as to what constitutes idolatry may differ within and between them. In other religions the use of cult images is accepted. Which images, ideas, and objects constitute idolatry is often a matter of considerable contention.
Behaviour considered idolatrous or potentially idolatrous may include the creation of any type of image of the deity, or of other figures of religious significance such as prophets, saints, and clergy, the creation of images of any person or animal at all, and the use of religious symbols, or secular ones. In addition, Christian theologians, following Saint Paul, have extended the concept to include giving undue importance to other aspects of religion, or to non-religious aspects of life in general, with no involvement of images specifically. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods, or demons (for example satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money etc.” In some ultra-conservative Islamic societies with sharia law, idolaters may face the death penalty.
The avoidance of the use of images for religious reasons is called aniconism. The destruction of religious images within a culture is called iconoclasm, of which there have been many major episodes in history.
Chapter 1. Etymology
The word idolatry comes (by haplology) from the Greek word εἰδωλολατρία eidololatria parasynthetically from εἰδωλολάτρης from εἴδωλον eidolon, “image” or “figure”, and λάτρις latris, “worshipper” or λατρεύειν latreuein, “to worship” from λάτρον latron “payment”. Although the Greek appears to be a loan translation of the Hebrew phrase avodat elilim, which is attested in rabbinic literature (e.g., bChul., 13b, Bar.), the Greek term itself is not found in the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, or in other Hellenistic Jewish writings. It is also not found in (pre-Christian) Greek literature. In the New Testament, the Greek word is found only in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, where it has a derogatory meaning, as one of the vices. It is also found in the Didache and the Apostolic Decree includes a prohibition from the “pollution of idols”. Hebrew terms for idolatry include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations).
In current context, however, idolatry is not limited to religious concepts. It can also refer to a social phenomenon where false perceptions are created and worshipped, or even used as a term in the entertainment industry.
The Christian view of idolatry may generally be divided into two general categories, the Catholic/Orthodox view (which accepts the use of religious icons and other images) and the Protestant view. Fundamentalist Protestants still often accuse these other Christians of idolatry, iconolatry, and even paganism for failing to “cleanse their faith” of the use of images; in the Protestant Reformation such language was common to all Protestants. Puritan groups adopted a view similar to Judaism (as a result they were accused of Judaizing), denouncing all forms of religious objects, whether in three-dimensional or two-dimensional form, including even a plain cross.
The problem springs from differences in interpretation of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me. 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; 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (RSV Exodus 20:3-6).
The Roman Catholic and particularly the Orthodox Churches cite St. John of Damascus‘ work “On the Divine Image” to defend the use of icons. He wrote in direct response to the Byzantine iconoclasm that began in the 8th century by the Byzantine emperor Leo III and continued by his successor Constantine V. St. John maintains that depicting the invisible God is indeed wrong, but he argues that the incarnation, where “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14
), indicates that the invisible God became visible, and as a result it is permissible to depict Jesus Christ. He argues: “When He who is bodiless and without form… existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you draw His image…”
He also observes that in the Old Testament, images and statues were not absolutely condemned in themselves: examples include the images of cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV
18 And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.
And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. of...: or, of the matter of the mercy seat
And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.
And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.
) which God instructed Moses to make, the embroidered figures of cherubim angels which God told Moses to make on the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies
in the Tabernacle
tent (Exodus 26:31
), or the bronze serpent
mentioned in the book of Numbers
He defends external acts of honour towards icons, arguing that there are “different kinds of worship” and that the honour shown to icons differs entirely from the adoration of God. He continues by citing Old Testament examples of forms of “honour”: “Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his brother, and also before the tip of his son Joseph’s staff (Genesis 33:3
). He bowed down, but did not adore. Joshua, the Son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God (Joshua 5:14
) but they did not adore him. For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honour something of great excellence is another”. He cites St. Basil
who asserts, “the honour given to the image is transferred to its prototype”. St. John argues therefore that venerating an image of Christ does not terminate at the image itself – the material of the image is not the object of worship – rather it goes beyond the image, to the prototype.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians use religious objects such as statues, Crosses, Icons, incense, the Gospel, Bible, candles and religious vestments. Icons are mainly in two- but rarely in three-dimensional form. These are in dogmatic theory venerated as objects filled with God’s grace and power — (therefore Eastern Orthodoxy declares they are not “hollow forms” or cult images).
Evidence for the use of these is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship. For example, the veneration of the tombs and statues of martyrs was common among early Christian communities. In 397 St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions 6.2.2, tells the story of his mother making offerings for the statues and tombs of martyrs. This is a very early form of Christianity, as the Biblical Canon had only been adopted about 30 years previously at the Council of Laodicea, however see Development of the Christian biblical canon for details.
The offering of veneration in the form of latria (the veneration due God) is doctrinally forbidden by the Orthodox Church; however veneration of religious pictures or Icons in the form of dulia is not only allowed but obligatory. Some outside observers find it difficult to distinguish these two levels of veneration in practice, but the distinction is maintained and taught by believers in many of the hymns and prayers that are sung and prayed throughout the liturgical year.
In Orthodox apologetics for icons, a similarity is asserted between icons and the manufacture by Moses (under God’s commandment) of the Bronze Snake, which was, Orthodoxy says, given the grace and power of God to heal those bitten by real snakes. “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any person, when he beheld the serpent of brass, they lived”(Numbers 21:9
). Another similarity is declared with the Ark of the Covenant
described as the ritual object above which Yahweh was present (Numbers 10:33-36
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV
33 And they departed from the mount of the LORD three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them.
And the cloud of the LORD was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp.
And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, LORD, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.
And when it rested, he said, Return, O LORD, unto the many thousands of Israel. many thousands: Heb. ten thousand thousands
); or the burning bush
which, according to Exodus, God spoke to Moses through; or the Ten Commandments which were the Word of God (“Dabar Elohim
“) in tablet form. These inanimate objects became a medium by which God worked to teach, speak to, encourage and heal the Hebrew
Veneration of icons through proskynesis was codified in the Seventh Ecumenical Council during the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, in which St. John of Damascus was pivotal. Icon veneration is also practiced in the Catholic Church, which accepts the declarations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but it is practiced to a lesser extent, since Latin-rite Catholics today do not usually prostrate and kiss icons, and the Second Vatican Council enjoined moderation in the use of images. Eastern-rite Catholics still use icons in their Divine Liturgy, however.
Some Protestant groups avoid the use of images in any context suggestive of veneration. Religious images are common in Catholic, Orthodox churches. The use of some religious images and symbols, for example in printed matter, is now more common among many modern Protestant groups than was the case in the 16th century, but large publicly displayed images, except the cross, are rare. Many Conservative Christians avoid any use of religious images, even for inspiration, as idolatry.
||For know you this and understand: That no fornicator or unclean or covetous person (which is a serving of idols) hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.–Ephesians Chapter 5:5