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Analysis of the Second Commandment

Second Commandment: Graven Images & God

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What is a “graven image,” exactly? This has been the subject of a great deal of controversy between various Christian churches over the centuries. Of particular importance here is the fact that while the Protestant version the Ten Commandments includes this, the Catholic does not. A prohibition against graven images, if read literally, would cause a number of problems for Catholics.

Aside from the many statues of various saints as well as of Mary, Catholics also commonly use crucifixes that depict the body of Jesus whereas Protestants typically use an empty cross. Of course, both Catholic and Protestant churches commonly have stained glass windows that depict various religious figures, including Jesus, and they are also arguably violations of this commandment.

The most obvious and simplest interpretation is also the most literal: the second commandment prohibits the creation of any image of anything at all, whether divine or mundane. This interpretation is reinforced in Deuteronomy 4:

    Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

It would be rare to find a Christian church that doesn’t violate this commandment and most either ignore the problem or interpret it in a metaphorical manner that is contrary to the text. The most common means to get around the problem is to insert an “and” between the prohibition against making graven images and the prohibition against worshipping them. Thus, it is thought that making graven images without bowing down and worshipping them is acceptable.

Only a few denominations, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, continue to take the second commandment seriously — so seriously, in fact, that they often refuse to have their photographs taken. Traditional Jewish interpretations of this commandment do include objects like crucifixes as among those prohibited by the Second Commandment. Others go further and argue that the inclusion of “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” is a prohibition against tolerating false religions or false Christian beliefs.

Although Christians typically find a way to justify their own “graven images,” that doesn’t stop them from criticizing the “graven images” of others. Orthodox Christians criticize the Catholic tradition of statuary in churches. Catholics criticize the Orthodox veneration of icons. Some Protestant denominations criticize the stained glass windows used by Catholics and other Protestants. Jehovah’s Witnesses criticize the icons, statues, stained glass windows, and even crosses used by everyone else. None reject the use of all “graven images” in all contexts, even secular.

One of the earliest debates among Christians over the way this commandment should be interpreted resulted in the Iconoclastic Controversy between the mid-8th century and the mid-9th century in the Byzantine Christian Church over the question of whether Christians should revere icons. Most unsophsticated believers tended to revere icons (they were called iconodules), but many political and religious leaders wanted to have them smashed because they believed that venerating icons was a form of idolatry (they were called iconoclasts).

The controversy was inaugurated in 726 when Byzantine Emporer Leo III commanded that the iamge of Christ be taken down from the Chalke gate of the imperial palace. After much debate and controversy, the veneration of icons was officially restored and sanctioned during a council meeting in Nicaea in 787. However, conditions were put on their use — for example, they had to be painted flat with no features which stood out. Down through today icons play an important role in the Eastern Orthodox Church, serving as "windows" to heaven.

One result of this conflict was that theologians developed a distinction between veneration and reverence (proskynesis) which was paid to icons and other religious figures, and adoration (latreia), which was owed to God alone. Another was bringing the term iconoclasm into currency, now used for any attempt to attack popular figures or icons.

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