Source: Catholic Truth Society, London

One of the charges most commonly made against the Catholic Church in Protestant countries — and that not by ignorant persons only, but often by writers who have some reputation for candour and learning — is that she encourages amongst her adherents an idolatrous use and "worship" of holy images, such as is plainly "forbidden in the Second Commandment"; and that, conscious of such image-worship being anti-Scriptural, she is guilty of "totally suppressing" that Commandment in most of her popular works of instruction; and — in order to preserve the number of the prohibitions in the Decalogue — of "splitting the Tenth into two separate commandments."

Before giving a direct answer to the Protestant charge that the Catholic Church "suppresses the Second Commandment" — i.e. the words "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image," etc., it is necessary to call attention to the following facts:

  1. That in the original Old Testament Scriptures there is no mention of the "Ten Commandments" at all, but merely of the "Ten Words'' delivered to Moses.
  2. That the original Hebrew had no division of these "Ten Words," and that many eminent Jewish authorities — e.g. Jonathan ben Uzziel Maimonides, Aben Ezra, and Moses ben Nachman — retain the combination of what Protestants call the First and Second Commandments (and so far sanction the Catholic division), but regard as the first "Word" the opening declaration: "I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
  3. That the reason why Catholics regard the Commandment, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife," as distinct from that which forbids the coveting of his goods, is simply this: that as the Commandment against "stealing" and that against "coveting one's neighbour's goods" distinguish the outward act and the inward desire, so the Commandments against "adultery" and "coveting one's neighour's wife" distinguish the outward act and the inward desire. Protestants themselves surely cannot maintain that the sin of coveting a man's ox or ass is similar in kind to the desire of seducing his wife! 1

The Speaker's Commentary, a standard Protestant work, admits (vol. I, page 337) that the Catholic division of the Commandments was formally advocated by St. Augustine fifteen centuries ago, and "universally adopted in the Western Church until the Reformation;" also that "it is still retained by the Lutheran as well as by the Romish Church." Archdeacon Paley, the well-known Protestant author of a work on the "Evidences of Christianity" in a sermon on Exodus 20:5 (published in his collected Works) says:

"The First and Second Commandment may be considered as one, inasmuch as they relate to the same subject, or nearly so. For many ages and by many Churches they were put together and considered as one Commandment. The subject to which they both relate is false worship, or the worship of false gods.2 This is the single subject to which the prohibition of both Commandments relates, the single class of sins which is guarded against."

In Addis and Arnold's Catholic Dictionary (page 196) it is remarked that the Catholic division has:

"the whole weight of Rabbinical tradition" on its side; and further, that it "is the only one consistent with the Hebrew text, as usually found in MSS. and printed editions. The text is divided into ten sections, which correspond precisely with our Catholic division. These sections are admitted to be very ancient, older even than the Masoretic text, and the Protestant scholar Kennicott found them so marked in 460 out of 694 MSS. which he collated."

Coming now to the Protestant charge of "suppression," I remark that every Catholic catechism or work of religious instruction which professes to give the commandments at length, contains, of course, the whole of what Protestants are pleased to call the "Second" Commandment. It is quite true, however, that in some small catechisms, intended for young children or very illiterate persons, the words referred to are wholly or partially omitted — and why? Simply because ALL the Commandments are given in the brief and concise form in which our Lord cited them. St. Matthew 29:18, 19, St. Mark 10:19; and St. Paul in Romans 13:9; and therefore the words about images — which are only a part of the First Commandment — are omitted; just in the same way and for the same reason that the sentences following "Honour thy father and mother," and "Remember to keep holy the seventh day," are also invariably omitted in the small Catechisms.

According to the Speaker's Commentary (i. page 336), Ewald, a learned German Protestant, "supposes that the original Ten Commandments were all in the same terse and simple form of expression as appears in the [Protestant] 1st, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th, such as would be most suitable for recollection, and that the passages in each copy [in Exodus and Deuteronomy] in which the most important variations are found, were comments added when the books were written."

Be this as it may, Protestants would find it difficult to produce, out of the whole Christian literature of the first 1,500 years, any work of instruction in which the Commandments are given at length, as in the Anglican Catechism. "In those copies of the Commandments," says the Speaker's Commentary, "which have been used in different branches of the Church for the instruction of its members, the form has almost always been more or less abbreviated of a part or the whole of those commandments which are the most expanded in Exodus and Deuteronomy."

Many eminent authorities — Protestant as well as Catholic — consider that the latter part of the First Commandment (the Protestant "Second ") was, in the letter, intended only for the Jews. The late Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, says: "The Second Commandment is in the letter utterly done away with by the fact of the Incarnation"3 (Stanley's Life of Arnold, volume I, page 315). And again (volume ii, page 405), he writes during his "Tour to Rome and Naples through France and Italy:

"Now for Bourges a little more. In the crypt is a Calvary, and figures as large as life representing the burial of our Lord. The woman who showed us the crypt had her little girl with her; and she lifted up the child, about three years old, to kiss the feet of our Lord. Is this idolatry? Nay, verily it may be so; but it need not be; and assuredly it is in itself right and natural. I confess I rather envied the child. It is not idolatry to bend knee, lip, and heart to every thought and image of Him, our manifested God!"

It seems very evident that, according to the letter, what Protestants call the "Second" Commandment forbids not only the worshipping but even the "making" of "any graven image, or the likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.'' "The Jews," says the Speaker's Commentary (page 331), "have imagined Exodus 20:4 to be a prohibition of the exercise of the arts of painting and sculpture. ... Josephus charges Solomon with a breach of the law, on account of the oxen which supported the golden sea, and the lions which adorned his throne [Antiq. viii. 7, §4), and in direct contradiction of Exodus 35:31, he denies that the veil which concealed the most holy place was ornamented with living creatures" [Antiq. iii 6, § 4).

"From the time of the Maccabees," says another Protestant writer, "the Second Commandment was generally understood by the Jews to forbid not only the worship of the likeness of any living things but even the making of it. ... Origen asserts that there was no maker of images among their citizens; neither painter nor sculptor was in their state" (Adv. Celsum, iv. 31. See Smith and Cheetham's Dict. of Christ. Antiq. vol. I, page 813). It would seem also, from the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian, and others, that some of the early Christian converts must have adopted this Jewish interpretation of the Commandment. "It appears that most of the Jewish converts would enter the church thoroughly imbued with a dislike of images; and it is probable that many of the heathens would be similarly affected towards them out of mere horror at the idolatry which they had forsaken."

No doubt the early converts from Judaism continued for some time to observe the Jewish Sabbath, or "Seventh" day of the week (see St. Matthew 24:20); and for a much longer period did they regard as still in force the prohibition against "eating blood and things strangled,'' a prohibition which was actually re-enforced by the Apostles in the first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:20). After a time, the Church, exercising that power of "loosing" which had been given to her by Christ (St. Matthew 16:19; 18:18) entirely released the faithful from the obligation of observing these ordinances; and, exercising the same power also in regard to the ceremonial part of the First Commandment, she declared that the prohibition of the arts of sculpture and painting was no longer binding on Christians.

From the numerous paintings, sarcophagi, etc, discovered in the Catacombs at Rome, it is evident that these arts were exercised by the Christians, under certain necessary restrictions, from a very early period.4 Representations of our Lord as "the Good Shepherd, on the Eucharistic chalices, are mentioned by Tertullian, who wrote at the end of the second century (De Pudicitia). It was not, however, until the fourth century, — when heathen persecutions had ceased, and the Christians were at liberty to erect everywhere large and stately churches in honour of God and His Saints, — that pictures and images began to be commonly employed as religious ornaments, and as aids and incentives to Christian piety and devotion.

1. It is objected that in the Hebrew of Exodus 20:17, the words "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house" precede the prohibition against coveting his wife; but the LXX [Septuagint] version places "wife" first, as in Deuteronomy v. 21. The order of several of the Commandments, as cited in St. Mark 10"19, St. Luke 18:20, differs from the Hebrew text. It should be added that in Deuteronomy a different word is used in reference to wife ("Thou shalt not desire" — thakmod — "thy neighbour's wife"), and in reference to the other objects ("neither shalt thou covet" — hithavveh — "thy neighbour's house, etc.). This affords an additional argument in favour of the Catholic division. return

2. In Scripture the two prohibitions — of the worship of false gods, and the worship of their images — usually appear as one Commandment. This is evident from such passages as Exodus 20:23; I Kings (Protestant Version) 14:9; II Kings 17:35, 41; Isaiah 44:15, 17; and all those texts, in which to "serve images" and to "serve other gods" is considered as the same crime, and, of course, as a violation of the same Commandment. return

3. "It is manifest to every thinking person that the fact of the Incarnation is a virtual repeal of the Second Commandment. For in the Person of Jesus Christ there was given us an image of God which we might and should represent to ourselves in our own mind; and what our thoughts and minds may lawfully and profitably dwell upon may clearly be no less lawfully and profitably be presented to our bodily senses." After arguing the point fully, Dr, Arnold continues thus: "The Bible Society and other societies of the same kind can have circulated the Scriptures to little purpose, if the sight of the Cross and the Crucifix would indeed minister to superstition rather than to godliness " (Arnold's Sermons, vol. 3 page 40, note. Quoted in the Guardian. Feb. 1, 1888.


4. See Northcote and Brownlow's Roma Sotterranea. return