Idols and Images: Ten Commandments, Yes, But How Do You List Them?

Moses and Aaron, with the Ten Commandments: Aron de Chaves (1674)

I received a little pushback offline on a previous post about dream catchers. I kind of expected that.

Christians have long struggled with the relationship between idols and visual images. Much of the controversy stems back to how Christians read the Ten Commandments, or more to the point, how various Christians read the Ten Commandments differently. An often ignored consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation illustrates the difficulty.

The Ten Commandments are derived from two passages from the Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, texts that are very close to one another in content. But careful study demonstrates that not every Christian identifies all of the commandments in the exact same manner. However, contrary to some misguided assertions, there are no mainstream Christian traditions that have “changed” the Ten Commandments. Rather, the problem is in how different traditions have grouped the various commandments together.

An obvious question to start off with would be, so why “Ten” commandments? Well, we have three passages in the Bible that directly tell us of “ten words” given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4).

However, the Bible was not divided up into a verse numbering scheme until the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century. Therefore, in the early church, there was no intuitively clear way to group the Ten Commandments together. Even the Jews have had their own unique pattern of grouping the “commandments,” and it has not matched 100% with any Christian version.

Varying Groupings of the Ten Commandments

The most common Christian method, familiar to most Reformed Protestants (as well as the Eastern Orthodox), is derived from the pattern set by an early church father from the Christian East, Origen of Alexandria, Egypt (2nd century).  If you read and compare with the Exodus or Deuteronomy passages, you will see that Origen divided the text into two, one group of four commandments pertaining to God, and another group of six commandments pertaining to our neighbor. Each specific commandment effectively has a main article, where the rest of the relevant biblical text (if any) is often left off, intended as commentary to the main article.

For example, the main article for remembering the sabbath, to keep it holy, is followed in the biblical text with some additional verses, describing how we have six days to work, then a day after that to rest, etc. (Exodus 20:8-11). All of this is commentary, to flesh out the meaning of the main article.

Here are Origen’s groupings, for the first four commandments, following the King James Version, that many Christians are familiar with. Notice that the main articles are kept, but the biblical “commentary” is skipped:

(1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
(2) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
(3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
(4) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Roman Catholics and Lutherans follow the groupings set by another early church father from the Christian West, Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa (4th-5th century). Augustine divided the commandments differently from Origen; three with respect to God, and seven with respect to our neighbor. Presumably, having “three” commandments with respect to God sounded more “Trinitarian” to Augustine. Here are those three:

(1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
(2) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
(3) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.


What happened to the commandment against “graven images?”

Well, for Augustine, the prohibition against “graven images” gets subordinated as commentary into commandment number one, that believers should only worship the God of the Bible. If you only worship one God, the God of the Bible, then it stands to reason that you would not fashion together a visible image, and worship it as an idol (Note: Augustine eventually got his list of “Ten” commandments filled out by dividing Origen’s tenth commandment, about coveting, into two separate commandments; coveting your neighbor’s wife, versus coveting anything else).

But if you only heard of the Ten Commandments, as summarized by their main articles, and never read the actual biblical text, how would you have figured that out?

Iconclasts in a church (1630), Dirck van Delen (1604-1671). Wikipedia.

The Ten Commandments and the Protestant Reformation

Enter into the world of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther was the chief instigator of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. As a Bible professor at the University at Wittenberg, Luther was originally concerned about reforming the church’s doctrine, beginning with speaking out against the sale of indulgences, in the late 1510’s and early 1520’s. But shortly after Luther became a controversial figure, among traditional, medieval Catholics, Luther ran into problems with some of his fellow Protestant Reformers as well. An academic colleague at Wittenberg, Andreas Karlstadt, was one of them.

Within the early years after Luther’s famous nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses, to the Castle Church door, Andreas Karlstadt and Luther were supporters of one another. Like Luther, Professor Karlstadt was frustrated with the corruption of the medieval church, and together they both targeted reforms that would base Christian doctrine squarely on the Bible, and not the corruptible traditions of men. But when Luther was forced into hiding, after his “Here I stand, I can do no other” confrontation at the Diet of Worms, Karlstadt took a more radical direction.

Andreas Karlstadt, one-time colleague of Martin Luther’s, in the reformation of the church. Karlstadt had taught theology at Wittenberg, the same university where Luther began his campaign against the sale of indulgences, in 1517 (Wikipedia).

Karlstadt began to take the admonition against “graven images” very seriously. He encouraged the people of Wittenberg to take down all visual images used in worship, including statues of Mary and other saints, paintings, whatever. To Karlstadt, the medieval practice of using visual art as an aid to worship was simply a cloak for idolatry. The mere presence of these images in the churches required their removal. Zealous riots ensued, and many churches, and their precious artworks, were destroyed.

Evidently, Karlstadt believed that the mere act of “making a graven image” was sufficient enough to designate it as an idol, a point that Luther disputed as an irresponsible reading of the Bible. From one of Karlstadt’s sermons, On the Removal of Idols, he rhetorically imagines God’s displeasure:

How is it that you are so audacious as to set up images and idols in my house? How can you be so bold and impudent that in my house you bow down and kneel before pictures which have been made by the hands of men? Such honors belong to me.

Martin Luther was alarmed by Karlstadt’s overzealousness, and the violence that resulted from Karlstadt’s preaching. When Luther finally came out of hiding, he confronted Karlstadt. The meeting did not go very well. In an indignant sermon pamphlet, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525), Luther preached the following:

I approached the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God’s Word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart. they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from sight and leaving them in the heart. For he does not preach faith, nor can he preach it; unfortunately, only now do I see that. Which of these two forms of destroying images is best, I will let each man judge for himself.

For Luther, tearing down an external image, while leaving the spirit of idolatry internally untouched, within the human heart, is the real sin. Only by preaching the Word of God, in its fullness, will the human heart find freedom from such attachments to so-called “idols,” made of human hands. In the same sermon, Luther even charged Karlstadt with introducing his own, perverse form of works-righteousness, placing a burden on the souls of others, to externally rid themselves of such “idols” through physical destruction, as a means of securing salvation:

Such legalism results in putting away outward images while filling the heart with idols. I say this so that everyone may see the kind of a spirit that is lodged in Karlstadt. He blames me for protecting images contrary to God’s Word, though he knows that I seek to tear them out of the hearts of all and want them despised and destroyed…. For although the matter of images is a minor, external thing, when one seeks to burden the conscience with sin through it, as through the law of God, it becomes the most important of all…. to ensnare the conscience with laws in these matters is death for the soul.

Luther saw no problem with images themselves, but he did see a problem with worshipping them. He defends his position by appealing to the story of Moses, whereby the people who were biten by snakes were to look up at a serpent on a pole, in order to live (Numbers 21:4-19). Luther was well aware that even this serpent upon a pole could be falsely worshipped, which eventually led to the pole’s destruction by King Hezekiah (II Kings 18:4).

Luther further commented that Joshua set up a stone altar at Shechem, to honor the Lord and to give the people a reminder to stay true to God, and yet there is no hint from Scripture that God despised this visual image (Joshua 24:26-27).  In addition, the Book of Joshua also reports when the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, those who settled east of the Jordan River, built a massive altar. The other Israelite tribes, west of the Jordan River, first feared that the altar was built as an alternative place for worship, which was indeed forbidden. But upon further discussion, they learned from the eastern tribes that the altar acted only as a witness, to remind future generations of the common bond all Israelites had together, in the worship of the one true God. Therefore, the construction of the altar was vindicated (Joshua 22:10-34).

It should come as no surprise that the followers of Luther adopted Augustine’s version of the Ten Commandments, whereby the command to refrain from visual images is modestly subjugated under the command not to have any other gods. Luther protested Rome in many areas, but concerning the matter of the visual arts, for use in Christian worship, he oddly found agreement here.

In contrast, the leaders of the Swiss Reformation, like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, and the fiery Scottish Reformer, John Knox, were inspired by the views of Andreas Karlstadt. This “Reformed” tradition adopted Origen’s version of the Ten Commandments, where the command to stay away from visual images is made explicit. The followers of Karlstadt may not have forbidden images for the same radical reasons as Karlstadt. They may have sought to reject images simply to avoid visual distractions from properly hearing the Word of God being preached. But the effect was the same. The paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows had to go.

Visual Arts Through Protestant History

Hausmann’s 1746 portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, a German Lutheran composer of fine Christian music. But had he been from Reformed Scotland, he might have destroyed church organs instead.

A comparison of how the differences between those areas of Europe influenced by the Reformed tradition, that sought to destroy visual images, and the Lutheran tradition, that sought to preserve them, can be traced out over history. For example, areas like Switzerland and Scotland, where the Reformed tradition has been predominant, do not have the same wealth of explicitly Christian visual art from this period of history, when compared to what you find in areas of Germany, dominated by Luther. In Scotland alone, it is very difficult to find any stained glass windows in churches existing prior to the Reformation period. Aside from perhaps one church in Edinburgh, all the stained glass in Scotland was smashed.

It bears worth adding that Andreas Karlstadt was not much of a fan of instrumental music, either, in Christian worship. This is unlike Martin Luther, who is still well-known for some remarkable hymns.

Protestant England is a bit more complicated, in its history. England moved to adopt more of a Reformed, as opposed to a Lutheran influence, in terms of theology. But when Queen Elizabeth came on the throne in the second half of the 16th century, she met the changes to English worship only halfway. Elizabeth was still a lover of elegant art and music, and she resisted the more radical Reformed elements that would have sought to completely rid the churches of visual artwork, and reduce the music of the church to more plain interpretations of the psalms.

If you like the rich tradition of English choral music, and English church visual art, you should thank the 16th century Queen Elizabeth.

An Evaluation

Back in 2003, when Alabama Judge Roy Moore stood in the middle of a controversy regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments, some friends of mine were asking, “What version of the Ten Commandments does Judge Moore want to display?” I had no idea what they were talking about then. I do now.

Frankly, I do not really care about which listing of the Ten Commandments is “correct.” It is all spelled out there in the biblical text, anyway. Furthermore, Jesus summarized the commandments very well, with just two commands; loving God, and loving your neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). Traditional listings vary, but the Bible is clear about the foundational importance of following these commandments.

However, if had to err on one side or the other, Luther’s preservation of the visual arts (and music) against the more bare and plain expression that rejects such art, associated with Karlstadt, I will gladly side with Martin Luther on this one. Harkening back to my previous post, I would not put a Native American dream catcher in the same category as stained glass in an English cathedral.  The former is a cultural-identity symbol, at least for most people who know about it, or possibly as a talisman device for a pretty small minority, and the latter is specifically used in the context of Christian worship. Fair enough, this distinction is important.

But the fact that both dream catchers and English cathedral stained glass, represent forms of visual art, they have something in common. They both stand being eligible as things to be smashed, if the Christians who look upon them consider them to be idols. Granted, most evangelical Christians I know today would not go as far as the radical “idol smashers” did during the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

But I still wonder sometimes. As the recent tragedies in ISIS-held Syria and Iraq have unfolded, with the mass destruction of ancient Persian artifacts, it hits a bit too close to home, as I think about some of my Protestant forebears. I also wonder how many particularly enthusiastic Christians today would be willing to join those Muslims in the destruction. My impression is that if Andreas Karlstadt was alive today, he might be first in line with his hammer.

The destruction of art, when it becomes an object of worship is justified, and commanded by Holy Scripture. This is true. But the best and most proper way to destroy idols is to attack our spiritual attachment to these supposed objects of worship, by exposure to the Word of God. The Word of God demonstrates that it is God, and God alone, who has the power. The only power an idol has is what we give to it. I agree with Luther that it is a matter of the heart and not a matter of externalities. In other words, Professor Karlstadt needed to go back and read his Bible again, with a little more contextual discernment!

We must be careful not to allow an overzealous interpretation of the Ten Commandments to impoverish ourselves, and rid the world of that art, which celebrates God’s good creation and tells the stories of both God and humanity. We should not mistake the external destruction of visual art as a valid substitute for the internal destruction of idolatrous love, that only the Word of God can effectively eradicate.

This post was partly inspired by a chapter from Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, excerpted at the Logos software blog, and partly by some audiobook reading from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Idols and Images: Ten Commandments, Yes, But How Do You List Them?

  • Mary

    What do iconoclasts (reformers or modern-day) say about the golden cherubim that God ordered for the tabernacle/temple, and the cherubim images on the curtains, and also carved in wood all over the inner and outer sanctuary?


    • Clarke Morledge

      They probably skip those parts of the Bible, just like they skip the story about Moses’ serpent on the pole, Joshua’s stone altar at Shechem, and the monument of witness on the east side of the Jordan 😉

      Unfortunately, I am afraid that most Western Christians today do not know who St. John of Damascus was.


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