Question 240:

Protestants claim that Catholics are idol worshippers. Is this true?



The accusation that Catholic doctrine and worship are idol worship was effectively made by the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) in his main theological work “Institutio Christianae Religionis” (EN: Instruction in the Christian Religion), which was first published in Basle in 1536. In volume 1 book 1 chapter 11 (=Institutio 1-1-11) of this work he claims that the Catholic defence when confronted with the charge of idol worship was meaningless. Chapter 11 of this book is titled: Iimpiety of attributing a visible form to god. — the setting up of idols a defection from the true god. Calvin’s comments relating to our question are summarised on the official Calvinist website in three points:

1. the Catholics foolishly differentiate between dulia (veneration of images) and latria (worship of images)

2. they carelessly claim that they serve the images without adoring them, as the meaning of the two Greek words shows

3. the Catholic Church is therefore no better than all other idol worshippers (accessed 13.07.2011)

The accusations the reformers and Calvin made of the Catholic Church still exists and Calvinists uphold it to this day, as the website quoted here demonstrates. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” comments:

“476 Since the Word became flesh in assuming a true humanity, Christ's body was finite. [cf. Syn. in the Lateran 649: DS 504.]. Therefore the human face of Jesus can be portrayed; (Gal. 3:1) at the seventh ecumenical council (Nicaea II in 787) [cf. DS 600 - 603) the Church recognized its representation in holy images to be legitimate.” The Catholic Catechism for Adults fo the German Bishops Conference comments in vol. 2: Leben aus dem Glauben:

“Christianity did not follow Israel in its prohibition of depicting God in images, but because of the cultic worship of images of the Emperor and because of the persecution of Christians who rejected such worship there were strong objections to cultic images.

In the early Christian period from the middle of the 3rd century the first religious images appeared, initially pictures from the Old and the New Testament and later also images of Christ and of the Saints. During the Byzantine and Carolingian iconoclastic controversy there were major confrontations about whether images and in particular the worship of images was permissible. The second Council of Nicaea (787) decided in favour of the veneration of images. The deeper theological reason for this decision is the idea that in the coming of Jesus Christ God himself became human. In Jesus Christ God lives his Godhood in a human way. With this, God has a concrete face, the face of Jesus of Nazareth. The human face of Jesus is the face of the Father, it is the icon of the Father. This understanding enables the depiction of Jesus Christ in pictures.” (P. 168)

On the website (accessed 13.07.2011) there is the following blog post which is worth citing here: 04.09.2002, 09:32

“I am not a theologian and I cannot give well founded answers, but the depiction of an image would only by idol worship if one was to worship the picture. In Catholic piety, however, a picture or a statue are only used to help the believer to focus on Jesus or on the saints. It is not the statue or the picture that is being prayed to but the one who is depicted.

Regarding the danger of misconceptions I would say that these could only affect external matters and would therefore be irrelevant to faith.

I once came across a different analogy. Catholics believe in the communion of saints. They are born into this family through Baptism. To have pictures of Saint is therefore as natural as having pictures of spouses, children, grandparents etc. on the mantelpiece.

Also, Jesus said that we should believe like children. And children need pictures. Families from free churches also have bible books for children in which scenes from the bible are shown in pictures. Jesus is pictured there too. If a member of a free church therefore objects to Catholic images he should first of all sort out his own childrens books. Those who want to believe like adults may do without pictures.

Gods blessing,


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