Monday, September 25, 2006

Postures of Prayer and Idol Worship

What follows is a short interaction I had with a poster named "Ely" at the Holy Culture Radio forum regarding the posture that Catholics take before statues and icons.
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Can you explain the practical difference between a person "bowing down to" and "venerating" an icon?
Yes, I can.............and I thank you for your honest question.

The first issue is one of semantics. To bow down to seems to imply divine worship of the statue. Thus, it would be an incorrect way to describe what the Catholic is doing. The posture of prayer is not to the statue, as if the statue where a god and we were praying to it. Instead, the statue is simply a reminder of the saint whose prayers we are invoking. We are not praying to the statue, we are requesting the prayers of the saint who is represented by it.

The second issue is the posture of kneeling or bowing, and what it means. The bible clearly shows that this posture need not be equated with divine worship, or the worship afforded to God alone. Lot "bowed himself with his face to the earth" before the angels that visited him in Sodom (Gen 19:1). Joseph's brothers "bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground" when they came to him for food (Gen 42:6). Saul "bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance" before Samuel (1 Sam 28:14). Bathsheba "bowed and did obeisance" to King David (1 Kings 1:16), as did Nathan (vs. 23), Ornan (1 Chron 21:21), and even the entire assembly (1 Chron 29:20). David himself bowed down before the temple of the Lord (Psa 138:2). The sons of the prophets at Jericho "bowed to the ground" before Elisha (2 Kings 2:15). King Nebuchadnezzar "fell upon his face, and did homage" to Daniel, and even commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him! (Dan 2:46). Even Jesus Christ himself will make those of the synagogue of Satan to bow down before the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:9).

No one would accuse all of these people of idol worship because they assumed a posture of prayer or worship before an object of God's creation. One should not accuse Catholics of doing the same thing. Ultimately, this is a matter of intent. Kneeling or bowing can imply worship, but it need not necessarily, as these scripture passages reveal. It is just as erroneous to assume that a Catholic is worshipping a statue (simply because he is kneeling near it) as it is to assume that Nebuchadnezzer was worshipping Daniel...........and Nebuchadnezzer did so much more!

What these passages also show is that kneeling/bowing can also be an act of respect, or veneration. That is in fact what is going on in all of these passages, and that is what the Catholic does. When a Catholic kisses a crucifix, this is not an act towards the actual metal/wooden cross he is holding. Instead, it is a sign of the love that he has for Jesus and His work on the cross. David knelt before the temple not to worship the actual stone structure but to make an act of humility before the presence of the Lord that the temple represented.

I hope that helps. For more on this, go here: Statues and Icons
Thanks. That was well-put. All those cases you presented show examples of people bowing down to certain things or people. We are not required to say that idolatry was being done in those situations. Fair enough.

Just a quick follow up. Are there any examples in the Scirptures of God commanding or even encouraging His people (not His enemies) to bow down to/kneel before people or physcial objects?
Well, right off hand, there's the last passage I cited, Rev 3:9, where Jesus says that he will make those of the synagogue of Satan to bow down before the church in Philadelphia. I don't see why it matters if the people doing the bowing are his enemies are not. Jesus is still commanding a group of people to bow down before another group of people, which he would never command anyone to do --enemy or otherwise-- if it was a sin.

Pax Christi,


  1. Just a little more info. on the subject of God encouraging people to do so.....and I think it is a vital thing to point out that the Church recognizes the need for something material, earthly for us interact with the same way a picture of my loved one does. The Church has condemned idolatry repeatedly.

    The use of statues and icons for liturgical purposes (as opposed to idols) also had a place in the Old Testament. In Exodus 25:18–20, God commanded: "And you shall make two cherubim of gold; 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 with 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."

    In Numbers 21:8–9, he told Moses: "‘Make 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." This shows the actual ceremonial use of a statue (looking to it) in order to receive a blessing from God (healing from snakebite). In John 3:14, Jesus tells us that he himself is what the bronze serpent represented, so it was a symbolic representation of Jesus. There was no problem with this statue—God had commanded it to be made—so long as people did not worship it. When they did, the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4). This clearly shows the difference between the proper religious use of statues and idolatry.

    When the time came to build the Temple in Jerusalem, God inspired David’s plans for it, which included "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 from the hand of the Lord concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan" (1 Chr. 28:18–19).

    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).

    (See the Catholic Answers tract, "Do Catholics Worship Statutes?" for further information.)

    Nice work Nick. Just stopping by! =)

  2. I really like this one. Nice work. (I have to admit I was wide-eyed looking through all the references, wondering if they were ever going to end... heh. *blush*)

  3. You already told me about this, but I wanted to comment anyway, because I know how much you enjoy comments :-) Wonderful explanation, my dear.


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