By Deacon Wasim Shehata
‘’You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’’ Exodus 20:4 | The 2nd Commandment, How Should Christians Attune it?
The 2nd commandment is something numerous Christians, from varying denominations, wrestle with. Many discuss this topic, where some are for the use of icons, and others against it. Most people that are against the use of icons usually use the 2nd commandment to back-up their idea. However, does this commandment mean that icons are forbidden, and that we as Orthodox Christians are violating this commandment? Let’s take a look at this commandment. The commandment says the following:
‘’You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’’ (Exodus 20:4)
Are images and icons violating this commandment? This commandment says, simply, that no one, or nothing, can be placed above God. Therefore, no one, or nothing, other than God may be worshipped. This idea that only God may be worshipped makes total sense, as He is truly the One to whom worship belongs (Deuteronomy 6:5; Exodus 20:1-3; Isaiah 42:8). Then what about icons? To correctly understand this commandment, its context must first be studied. One should remind himself that these commandments were given to Jews who lived among idolatry, and who themselves fell into idolatry at some point (Exodus 32), and would fall into idolatry in the future. In the Old Testament, people were quite simple, and therefore quite easy to allure. If they were allowed to make images and icons, they would get the feeling that they were no different from the Gentiles, as the Gentiles also worshiped images and objects. So the main issue lies not so much in the icons or objects, but their role in worship. Icons and object could either be an instrument in worship or being an object of worship. How do we know that there is a difference between these two categories? Let’s take a deeper look into the Bible.
The 2nd Commandment | The Bible
- Idolatry is not necessarily performed using physical objects. Paul the Apostle teaches us that idolatry is more broad that that saying: ‘’Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things’’ (Philippians 3:19). This shows that whatever is placed above God, regardless of what it is, is seen as idolatry. Paul teaches us not to take every word literally, saying, ‘’who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’’(2 Corinthians 3:6).
Noteworthy is that one greatest errors of the Jews was their literal implication of the word of God, which led them into several errors. One of these errors is that they thought, and taught, that one was forbidden to even do good deeds on the sabbath day. Christ explained to them that they were taking things too literal (Luke 13:10-17), as the sabbath day was originally implicated to remind the Jews of the importance of worship. By taking God’s word too literally, they have failed to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah. They were taking the prophecy of a king too literal, and thereby thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah as He was not a literal king (2 Samuel 7).
- If God was against the use of images and objects in worship, why would He later on tell Moses to build the Tabernacle and the Ark of Covenant? God commanded Moses to build the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, in order to use them in their worship. The Tabernacle, which later became the Temple and is currently the Altar (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5), contained two images of Cherubim. Moses and the Israelites knelt before the Ark of the Covenant, while God spoke to them between the two Cherubim (Exodus 25; Numbers 10).
In fact, Moses received detailed instructions from God on what the Ark of the Covenant should look like (Exodus 35-37). If God was really against the use of images and objects in worship, then by ordering Moses to build the Tabernacle and Ark of Covenant He would go against His own commands, which is not plausible.
- Depicting Cherubim is actually more common in the Old Testament. For example, Cherubim were depicted on the walls of the Temples to symbolize God ‘s presence (1 Kings 6; 2 Kings 3).
- God had furthermore commanded Moses to make a bronze fiery serpent, and anyone who was sick and went to that serpent would be healed (Numbers 21:8-9). This serpent remained intact until King Hezekiah brought it down, as the serpent was being seen as a god (2 Kings 18:4).
- With the Incarnation of the Word of God, and thereby the Word taking on the flesh to live among us (John 1:14), God showed Himself, to us, openly. Christ is ‘’the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’’ (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4), and man is the icon of God (1 Corinthians 11:7).
As these examples clearly show, the icons by themselves are not wrong. In fact, it has been a part of worship, given directly from God. Would it be plausible that icons, or certain objects, would be forbidden, and that the same God would give it to the same man? Moses, the one who received the Commandments, was the same person who was commissioned to make the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.
‘’sign thy forehead with the sign of the cross in order to defeat Satan and to glory in your Faith’’ Hippolytus of Rome, Canons of Hippolytus, Canon 29. | The 2nd Commandment – How should Christians view the 2nd commandment?
The 2nd Commandment | Early Church and Church Fathers
As with all topics, it is important to look at the views of the Church Fathers, in order to see if the Early Church mentioned icons, and if so, if they were used in worship.
The Early Church teaches us numerous things on how Christianity developed, and more importantly how it dealt with attacks, either internally or externally. It is important to realize that Church Fathers wrote against icons used by the Gentiles, not Christians. For example, Justin Martyr (AD 165) wrote that the mistake was made to worship icons of the dead .
The word dead is very important here, because by this Justin implies that icons of the living, however, are allowed. Christ is the First and the Last (Revelation 1: 8), lives forever (Hebrews 7:24) and is ‘’the same yesterday, today, and forever’’ (Hebrews 13:8).
Furthermore, we define death as the ‘’second death’’, meaning that one goes to hell. We do not believe that the ones who died are actually dead, but rather that their bodies died. Their souls are not dead, and therefore one could argue that the use of icons of the saints is also valid.
Melito of Sardis (180 AD), in one of his discourses, mentioned that some made statues from wood and offering sacrifices to them , which is pagan idolatry. This is something else than our Orthodox practices, we do not worship self-made wooden objects. Tertullian of Carthage (220 AD) confirmed this, and considered that idolatry is independent of object, material or form, and that it is about the intention of the worshipper . Irenaeus of Lyons (202 AD) said that followers of Gnosticism  placed the icons of Christ alongside those of philosophers, thereby depriving the icon of Christ of value .
Clement of Alexandria (215 AD) said that it is wrong to worship materialistic matter ,. Eusebius of Caesarea (340 AD)  referred to ancient statues in Philippi depicting Christ and the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years .
Cyril Alexandria (444 AD) was a strong supporter of icons, saying ‘’even if we make images of pious men it is not so that we might adore them as gods but that when we see them we might be prompted to imitate them; and if we make images of Christ, it is so that our minds might wing aloft in yearning for Him’’ , and Gregory the Great (604 AD) was of the same opinion .
Justin Martyr also mentioned that the cross was used as a symbol , and Tertullian mentioned that Christians were also ‘’worshipers of the cross’’ , . Simple crosses, along with the Greek letters chi-rho (χ-ρ) were frequently found in Christian catacombs . Hippolytus of Rome (235 AD)  mentioned the use of the cross in worship, saying ‘’sign thy forehead with the sign of the cross in order to defeat Satan and to glory in your Faith’’ .
Tertullian  and Origen of Alexandria (253 AD)  both mentioned the use of the cross during worship. Lactantius (325 AD) mentioned that the cross, and its striking, became a sign of blessing . It should be noted that Tertullian later on fell in the heresy of Montanism, and started attacking the Church for her use of icons .
Gregory of Nyssa (394 AD) mentioned an icon of the Passion of Christ that was dear to him, saying ‘’I have seen a painted representation of this passion, and have never passed by without shedding tears, for art brings the story vividly to the eyes’’ , and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (390 AD) mentioned that there were icons made of the martyrs that were martyred by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, saying ‘’the images venerated in public places still bear scars of that plague’’ .
Basil of Caesarea (379 AD) recaps all of the above saying ‘’the honour which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype’’, where he argued that the prototype is God, as God created man in His image .
The 2nd Commandment | Linguistically
Another argument, a linguistical argument, is somewhat more technical. When looking at Biblical texts and works of the Church Fathers, a distinction must be made between worship and veneration. Linguistically, there is a difference between worship (λατρεία – Lateria in Greek), and veneration (προσκυνέω – Proskuneó in Greek).
Moreover, the word ‘’iconography’’ comes from the Greek ‘’eikon’’, which means an image and ‘’graphia’’ , which simply means writing. Icons are used for veneration, not worship. Why does the church use icons? It can be seen as an example to someone we look up to. As a novice physicist, someone can look up to Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein or Nikola Tesla.
The person has posters or books of his examples in his room, as a motivation and reminder that it is possible to achieve the goal. They have what achieves what they want to achieve. This also applies to saints; they have achieved what we struggle for, the Kingdom.
Abovementioned things are not bad, and can even be good if used correctly. Deacon Wasim Shehata | The 2nd Commandment, How Should Christians Attune it?
The 2nd Commandment | Idolatry in our times
Nowadays, idolatry is still present but in different forms. It is not in the form of pagan gods, but rather in deifying several things such as social media and the news. If someone is so obsessed with social media, and everything in one’s life is centered around social media, than that person falls into idolatry. Other forms of idolatry in our times could be the self and ego, money, attention and more.
All these things are not harmful by themselves, but become so when people get overly obsessed with them. As Paul mentioned, ‘’I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself’’ (Romans 14:14). Therefore, abovementioned things are not bad, and can even be good if used correctly. Money, for instance, could be bad if it controls one’s life, but good if used to help those who are in need. Sadly enough, many do not realize that such obsessions are actually forms of idolatry, and what is even worse is that people think that such things are not even harmful.
Justin Martyr, Hortatory to the Greeks, 16
Melito of Sardis, Discourse presented in the presence of Antoninus Caesar
Tertullian of Carthage, On Idolatry, Chapter 3.
‘’Gnosticism’’. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gnosticism
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 25.6.
Clement of Alexandria, Miscellaneous, Book 5, Chapter 6.
Ibid, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 5.
One of the first and prominent Church Historians.
Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, Book 7, Chapter 18.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Psalms, On Psalm 115.
Gregory the Great, Letters, Letter 105.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 55.
Not in the literal sense of worshipping the cross, but that the cross was used in worship.
Tertullian of Carthage, Apology, Chapter 15.
Chi and Rho are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, Khristos (Χρῑστός).
Author of ‘’Apostolic Succession’’, an important document for Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Hippolytus of Rome, Canons of Hippolytus, Canon 29.
Tertullian of Carthage, Against Marcion, Book 3, Chapter 22.
Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Exodus, Homily 3.
Lactantius, on the Divine Institues, Chapter 4.
Tertullian of Carthage, On Idolatry, Chapter 7.
Migne. Patrologia Graeca, Volume 94, column 1261a.
Basil of Caesarea. On the Holy Spirit, chapter 18.
‘’Iconography’’. Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/iconography.
Columnists: COPTICNN™ award-winning columnists are a fundamental pillar of our coverage. They range in their interests from orthodoxy, faith, politics, to world affairs, to business, to the arts, to the way we live. No matter the issue, they are always in the middle of our Christian discourse. They are trusted by our readers and followed by many Coptic Orthodox Christians worldwide. Influential, provocative, and engaging, our columnists provide insights and analysis that can’t be found elsewhere, making them a prime destination for WORLD readers.