Citing the Second Commandment (Ex. 20:4-6), Dr. Paul Owen asks, “Does this commandment forbid physical demonstrations of veneration before images, and the adoration of the Eucharistic host in the worship services of the Church? I do not believe it does” Since I do believe that it does, let me mention just a few brief responses to some of Dr. Owen’s reasons.
First, he argues that the context of this commandment is “plainly dealing with the temptation to worship false gods.” He goes on to note a number of things about the commandment that are quite obviously true. “They are to give their allegiance to YHWH alone. They are to demonstrate that allegiance by refraining from making images of foreign deities.”
Now it is quite true that the Second Commandment prohibits graven images of false gods. But it is equally true that it prohibits graven images of the true God. Not only does God warn the Israelites in Dt. 4 to remember that they saw no form on the mountain (which would prevent them from trying to make an image of the true God), we also see in Aaron’s brief excursion into idolatry in the golden calf incident. Aaron made the prohibited image, but he did not do it in order to worship pagan deities. When he saw that the people were worshipping the calf as another god, he built an altar in front of it, and declared a festival to the Lord (Ex. 32:5). But he was tumbling down a mountainside in an avalanche, and was trying (futilely) to steer the three ton boulder bouncing in front of him. And when he came down off the mountain (in a very different way) Moses was not prepared to try to understand any nuances. He called the Levites to his side (v. 26), and in a display of remarkable divisiveness, not to mention hurtfulness to the work of global ecumenicity, he sent them out into the camp to take out about three thousand of their fellow Israelites. And they were blessed that day for doing so. Their targets would include revelers who were worshipping the calf, those who were not worshipping the calf but who just like to dance, those who were not worshipping the calf but saw a real opportunity to get laid, and the delegates from the National Council of Churches who were busy ministering at the altar Aaron made in the shadow of the golden calf. At moments like this, nothing is lamer than Aaron’s excuse — “out came this calf.” And I don’t want to be caught with a lame excuse like that when the Lord comes back. I don’t want Him to appear when I am in the middle of kissing an icon. Of course, Dr. Owen is right that we may not worship false gods in this way. But neither may we worship the true God in this way.
Dr. Owen points out what he believes to be a key distinction between pagan idolatry and the use of images “in some expressions of modern Christianity.” He says that “images of deities were viewed by the ancients as actual, sentinent, bodies of the gods.” He goes on to say that this “is not the way those who venerate images in the Church are supposed to think of them.” But there is a confusion here, and it is found in that word “supposed.” In all idolatrous cultures, a distinction can always be found between those philosophical minds who have a sophisticated understanding of it, and the guy in the street who does not. Where can we find more gods than in street-level Hinduism, but in philosophical Hinduism all is one. Sure, there is a difference between a rank superstitious approach and a sophisticated approach. Part of our discussion of this issue earlier addressed the superstitions that crowd in on the people generally on the basis of rationalizations that intellectuals can follow, but which no one else can. More than one person in the world thinks they have a real spiritual presence with them, and they “don’t care if rains or freezes, long as they have their plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of their car.” It is not sufficient to simply wave our hands over it and say that they are not “supposed” to do that. What happens to them if they do? Why does the bishop encourage it? Why are the CRUDE mailings that I have seen (wear this medal with true devotion and you will be ten feet tall and bulletproof) sent out with the approval of the Church? Why aren’t the Levites strapping on their swords? Um . . . just to be perfectly clear, the previous sentence was a metaphor.
Two more points. Dr. Owen says, “Images of Christ are images of the seen God (John 1:18). They are images of God’s own image of himself (Col. 1:15). They are not attempts to image the ineffable divine nature.” This is quite true. But they are attempts to make an image of something that God has already made an image of. Christ is already the icon of God. Why should we make icons of the icon? When the disciples were talking about the life of Christ ten years after the ascension, can you imagine one of them saying. “No, no. That was in Galilee. Don’t you remember? Jesus was by the lake and He pointed to Andrew, and . . .” In this, when one witness was recalling an event to other witnesses of it, there was absolutely no need for them to all deliberately shut out of their minds any remembrance of what Jesus had looked like on that day. “Second Commandment, you know!” John deliberately recalls what he had seen and touched (1 John 1:1-3). But for anyone who had encountered God’s icon in the flesh to try to sub in their own attempts at it would be more than a little weird. I believe Paul refers to this when he says, “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh; yea though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16). Because of the Incarnation, we affirm that Christ came in the flesh, and that He remains a true man forever at the right hand of God. But there is a way of knowing Christ after the flesh that St. Paul walks away from. And I would submit that devotion in front of inanimate objects is an example of that kind of thing. So, I affirm that first century cameras were in principle lawful, and that a snapshot of Christ would have been lawful also, and yet I would also say that if I were in possession of such a snapshot, with its own certificate of authenticity, the Second Commandment would still prohibit me from bowing down to that picture. Why? We do not know the enfleshed Christ after the flesh.
Dr. Owen concludes by saying that he believes that the equivalent offense would be when the gods themselves are conflated. “The equivalent sin of our day would be to conform the identity of the one true God to the teachings of other religions–whether it be the God of Judaism, of Mormonism, of Islam, or of Protestant liberalism.” I happen to agree that to conflate the gods in this way is also a violation of the first two commandments. But of course, the problem is that while this is also occuring, the spirit of syncretism that drives it is also are work in much of the ecumenical movement, and pushing in the same direction, for the same reasons. The Spirit of the Age has gotten into the ecclesiastical kitchen, and is trying to cook up a vat of indiscriminatory goo.