God condemns the sin of idolatry, whether it is in the form of worshipping statues or any other created thing that can become an idol. In Exodus 20:3-5 the Lord forbids the carving of graven images for the purpose of idolatry: 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. Anti-Catholic writer Loraine Boettner, in his book Roman Catholicism, makes the blanket statement, “God has forbidden the use of images in worship”.
Yet if people were to “search the scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), they would find the opposite is true. God forbade the worship of statues, but he did not forbid the religious use of statues. Instead, he actually commanded their use in religious contexts. People who oppose religious use of statues forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold (i.e., two gold statues of angels); 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 of 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” (Ex. 25:18-20). David gave Solomon the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chr. 28:18-19). David’s plan for the temple, which the biblical author tells us was “by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all”, included statues of angels. In obedience to this divinely inspired plan, Solomon built two gigantic, golden statues of cherubim: “In the most holy place he made two cherubim of wood and overlaid them with gold.
The wings of the cherubim together extended twenty cubits: one wing of the one, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and its other wing, of five cubits, touched the wing of the other cherub; and of this cherub, one wing, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and the other wing, also of five cubits, was joined to the wing of the first cherub. The wings of these cherubim extended twenty cubits; the cherubim stood on their feet, facing the nave. And he made the veil of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim on it” (2 Chr. 3:10-14). Similarly Ezekiel 41:17-18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and (on) the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim”. During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Israelites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] 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” (Num. 21:8-9). One had to look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations. People who do not know better sometimes say Catholics worship statues. Not only is this untrue, it is even untrue that Catholics honour statues. Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them.
The fact that someone kneels before a statue to pray does not mean that he is praying to the statue, just as “the fact that someone kneels” with a Bible in his hands to pray does not mean that he is worshipping the Bible. “Statues or paintings or other artistic devices are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it is easier to recall the lives of the saints by looking at representations of them. Sometimes anti-Catholics cite Deuteronomy 5:9, where God said concerning idols, “You shall not bow down to them”. Since many Catholics sometimes bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints, anti-Catholics confuse the legitimate veneration of a sacred image with the sin of idolatry.
Though bowing can be used as a posture in worship, not all bowing is worship. In Japan, people show respect by bowing in greeting (the equivalent of the Western handshake). Similarly, a person can kneel before a king without worshipping him as a god. In the same way, a Catholic who may kneel in front of a statue while praying isn’t worshipping the statue or even praying to it. The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) taught that idolatry is committed “by worshipping idols and images as God, or believing that they possess any divinity or virtue entitling them to our worship, by praying to, or reposing confidence in them” (374). Thus, the Catholic Church absolutely recognizes and condemns the sin of idolatry. What anti-Catholics fail to recognize is the distinction between thinking a piece of stone or plaster is a god and desiring to visually remember Christ and the saints in heaven by making statues in their honour. The making and use of religious statues is a thoroughly biblical practice. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know his Bible.