Our objection to worshiping images is that it is idolatry because that worship does not pass through them to Christ, but is actually just worshiping artwork in the same way that ancient idolaters were actually just worshiping statues. Such images do not direct our devotion to Christ, but away from him (who is invisible to us by God’s sovereign will) and to mistaken notions of one of his two natures. They are not necessary for our devotion – for they are not necessary for us to worship the Father and the Spirit.
The teaching of Thomas Aquinas has been much debated recently, and it is advantageous that we consider his own writings and not merely others about them. Below is the full text of Aquinas’ consideration of worshiping images of Christ from his Summa Theologiae IIIa, Q.25, Art. 3, followed by my commentary upon it. Note that when Thomas uses “latria” or “adoration” he means worship: “worship called forth by God, and given exclusively to Him as God, is designated by the Greek name latreia (latinized, latria), for which the best translation that our language affords is the word Adoration” (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia).
Article 3: Whether the image of Christ should be adored with the adoration of “latria”?
Objection 1: It would seem that Christ’s image should not be adored with the adoration of “latria.” For it is written (Ex. 20:4): “Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything.” But no adoration should be given against the commandment of God. Therefore Christ’s image should not be adored with the adoration of “latria.”
Objection 2: Further, we should have nothing in common with the works of the Gentiles, as the Apostle says (Eph. 5:11). But the Gentiles are reproached principally for that “they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man,” as is written (Rm. 1:23). Therefore Christ’s image is not to be adored with the adoration of “latria.”
Objection 3: Further, to Christ the adoration of “latria” is due by reason of His Godhead, not of His humanity. But the adoration of “latria” is not due to the image of His Godhead, which is imprinted on the rational soul. Much less, therefore, is it due to the material image which represents the humanity of Christ Himself.
Objection 4: Further, it seems that nothing should be done in the Divine worship that is not instituted by God; wherefore the Apostle (1 Cor. 11:23) when about to lay down the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Church, says: “I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.” But Scripture does not lay down anything concerning the adoration of images. Therefore, Christ’s image is not to be adored with the adoration of “latria.”
On the contrary, Damascene (De Fide Orth. iv, 16) quotes Basil as saying: “The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,” i.e., the exemplar. But the exemplar itself—namely, Christ—is to be adored with the adoration of “latria;” therefore also His image.
I answer that, As the Philosopher says (De Memor. et Remin. i), there is a twofold movement of the mind towards an image: one indeed towards the image itself as a certain thing; another, towards the image in so far as it is the image of something else. And between these movements there is this difference; that the former, by which one is moved towards an image as a certain thing, is different from the movement towards the thing: whereas the latter movement, which is towards the image as an image, is one and the same as that which is towards the thing. Thus, therefore, we must say that no reverence is shown to Christ’s image, as a thing—for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature. It follows therefore that reverence should be shown to it, in so far only as it is an image. Consequently, the same reverence should be shown to Christ’s image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of “latria,” it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of “latria.”
Reply to Objection 1: This commandment does not forbid the making of any graven thing or likeness, but the making thereof for the purpose of adoration, wherefore it is added: “Thou shalt not adore them nor serve them.” And because, as stated above, the movement towards the image is the same as the movement towards the thing, adoration thereof is forbidden in the same way as adoration of the thing whose image it is. Wherefore in the passage quoted we are to understand the prohibition to adore those images which the Gentiles made for the purpose of venerating their own gods, i.e., the demons, and so it is premised: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.” But no corporeal image could be raised to the true God Himself, since He is incorporeal; because, as Damascene observes (De Fide Orth. iv, 16): “It is the highest absurdity and impiety to fashion a figure of what is Divine.” But because in the New Testament God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image.
Reply to Objection 2: The Apostle forbids us to have anything in common with the “unfruitful works” of the Gentiles, but not with their useful works. Now the adoration of images must be numbered among the unfruitful works in two respects. First, because some of the Gentiles used to adore the images themselves, as things, believing that there was something Divine therein, on account of the answers which the demons used to give in them, and on account of other such like wonderful effects. Secondly, on account of the things of which they were images; for they set up images to certain creatures, to whom in these images they gave the veneration of “latria.” Whereas we give the adoration of “latria” to the image of Christ, Who is true God, not for the sake of the image, but for the sake of the thing whose image it is, as stated above.
Reply to Objection 3: Reverence is due to the rational creature for its own sake. Consequently, if the adoration of “latria” were shown to the rational creature in which this image is, there might be an occasion of error—namely, lest the movement of adoration might stop short at the man, as a thing, and not be carried on to God, Whose image he is. This cannot happen in the case of a graven or painted image in insensible material.
Reply to Objection 4: The Apostles, led by the inward instinct of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not put in writing, but which have been ordained, in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Wherefore the Apostle says (2 Thess. 2:14): “Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word”—that is by word of mouth—“or by our epistle”—that is by word put into writing. Among these traditions is the worship of Christ’s image. Wherefore it is said that Blessed Luke painted the image of Christ, which is in Rome.
Aquinas bases his claim that it is proper to worship the image of Christ on Basil’s opinion that worship passes through images and to what they purport to represent: since it is proper to worship Christ, therefore it is thought proper to worship images of him. This false premise contravenes Scripture’s prohibition of images (Ex. 20:4) and its conception of idolatry as consisting in the absurd worship of inanimate objects (Isa. 44:9-20; Jer. 10); and note that Aquinas’ Scripture references are found in the objections which he conspires to refute, not his own position. The only verse he references in support is 2 Thess. 2:14, which he interprets as providing blanket approval for Rome’s traditions, their frequent contradiction of Scripture’s explicit commands notwithstanding.
Aquinas’ answer is also based on Aristotle’s reasoning (“the Philosopher” in the Summa) about how thought works in adoration. Scripture warns us to beware lest human philosophy lead us astray: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). The Aristotelian notion Aquinas propounds here is mistaken, for he distinguishes regarding an image as it is in itself and regarding it insofar as it represents something else. Since an image of Christ is not regarded for its own sake, but insofar as it intends to represent Christ, Aquinas reasons it is proper to worship his images.
By such reasoning idolatry cannot exist, provided the worshiper regards an idol not as a statue but as representing what it purports to represent. This contradicts Scripture’s conception of the evil of idolatry as reducing its committers to the folly of worshiping mere objects.
No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” (Isa. 44:19).
In his Reply to Objection 1, Aquinas reasons that the evil of idolatry is that it is directed to false gods, not to objects as such. Again, that is not Scripture’s position (Ps. 135:15-18), and in this Aquinas’ reliance on Aristotle corrupts his exegesis. It might appear that 1 Cor. 10:14-22 supports Aquinas. Yet the best understanding of that passage’s teaching that idolaters offer sacrifice to demons is that idolaters’ worship does not pass through idols to demons, but by worshiping idols they do the bidding of the demons who use such worship of objects to ensnare them (1 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 4:8).
Aquinas regards it as improper to image God, since he is incorporeal. Images of Christ are acceptable, however, because in Christ God has taken to himself a “corporeal image.” In this lies much of the error of images of Christ and why many do not approve them for any use, much less worship. No one has ever portrayed Christ in the fullness of his being; at the most he can portray his humanity, and in fact he cannot even do that. The most he can do is portray what he imagines Christ’s humanity looked like, but long experience has shown that this never escapes the distortions of the artist’s preconceived cultural bias – hence in the West, Jesus is ever portrayed as a pale European, not a Levantine Jew. We should not worship some artist’s ridiculous, culture-bound notion of Jesus’ humanity. Such attempts to portray him also fail because they seek to portray him as he was during his first advent, not as he is now. Jesus’ present appearance is such that John strained the limits of description to give an idea of it (Rev. 1:12-16), and that it overwhelmed him (v. 17). No human art can accurately represent Christ as he is now.
To summarize, our objection to worshiping images is that it is idolatry because that worship does not pass through them to Christ, but is actually just worshiping artwork in the same way that ancient idolaters were actually just worshiping statues. Such images do not direct our devotion to Christ, but away from him (who is invisible to us by God’s sovereign will) and to mistaken notions of one of his two natures. They are not necessary for our devotion – for they are not necessary for us to worship the Father and the Spirit.
In this lies the weakness of ‘retrieving’ Thomas. It is a strange notion that renewing theology requires retrieving someone who taught the goodness of idolatry on the basis of self-justifying church tradition and Aristotelian philosophy, and in direct contradiction to Scripture, the exegesis of which was actually perverted by the tradition and philosophy in view. It is something of a mystery how that comports with 1 Cor. 5:11 (“I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is . . . an idolater”).
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.