Sacred Images – Do Catholics “Leave out” a Commandment?

A common charge against the Catholic Church is we “leave out” one of the commandments – specifically the one to not make idols.  An example of this thinking:

The Catholic Church long ago began making allowances for the idolatrous use of images by the way they reference the Ten Commandments.  In the Catholic catechism and in most official Catholic documents, the first and second commandments are combined and then summarized with “I am the Lord your God.  You shall not have other gods beside Me.”  Suspiciously absent is what comprises the second commandment in the Protestant numbering of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make any graven images.”

While it is understandable for “you shall not make any graven images” to be considered an aspect of “you shall not have other gods beside me,” based on the history of idolatry involving graven images throughout biblical and extra-biblical history, it seems unwise to not include “you shall not make any graven images” in every listing of the Ten Commandments.  The omission seems especially suspicious in light of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has long been accused of the idolatrous use of graven images.

Read more:

If you follow the link in that text to the “Ten Commandments,” it gives a list of the “Biblical” ten commandments that quite coincidentally uses the numbering system in place by most Protestants.  But is this accurate?  Is the way they number the commandments the “Biblical” way?

Most people do not realize within Sacred Scripture, the ten commandments are not actually numbered.  We know there are ten of them because Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, Deuteronomy 10:4 tell us Moses received ten commandments from God. 

But when you actually look at the text of the commandments, they are not numbered.  The full text of the commandments can be found in both Exodus Chapter 20, and Deuteronomy Chapter 5.  The Exodus text contains two “you shall” commands, ten “you shall not” commands, one “remember” command and one “honor” command, for a total of fourteen “command” statements.  The Deuteronomy text contains three “you shall” commands, six “you shall not” commands, four “neither shall you” commands, one “observe” command, and one “honor” command, for a total of fifteen “command” statements.  Some of that may vary with translations, but the principle is still there.  The commandments are not numbered for us, and it is obvious some of the “command” statements are meant to be combined to get to the ten.

We also need to remember we can’t assume anything based upon verse numbering or even most punctuation, as these are later, man-made additions to the text to improve readability.  So any numbering system in use to derive the “ten” commandments is simply man-made and can make no legitimate claim to be the “Biblical” way.  To claim as some do that Catholics left out the “second” commandment and split the “tenth” commandment into two has no Biblical basis, because there is no “Biblical” basis to know which commandment is actually the second and which is the tenth.

The full text of the commandments is also quite wordy.  So along with implementing a numbering system to get to ten, various groups have also abbreviated the commandments to get to a more readable, concise list.  This list would be how the commandments are often presented when displayed.  There are currently three different numbering systems and versions of shortened lists of the commandments I am aware of — the Jewish, the Catholic (which the Lutherans share) and a third shared by the Orthodox and other Protestants.  These are represented here.

You will notice in both the Jewish and the Catholic versions, the commandment to not make an idol is not considered to be a separate commandment but is rather considered to be part of the command to have no other gods beside God.  As the quote above noted, this is an understandable conclusion.  But they also make the claim that in the Catholic catechism and other official documents the command to not make idols is left out and this is “suspicious.”  That in fact, is not true.  Yes, on the shortened list it is not present because it’s considered to be part of the first commandment, and it’s a shortened list.  The Protestant list also leaves out a great deal of the text found in Scripture and assumes some commands are part of another.  But if you study the commandments in the catechism, you will discover they are given a very thorough treatment – in fact beginning on page 498 there are more than 100 pages devoted to what it means to live the commandments as part of our life in Christ.  Listed under the first commandment is the full text to include the part about making an idol (CCC2083), and there are four paragraphs specifically dedicated to that topic (CCC 2129-2132).  To try to make the claim the Church has “suspiciously” omitted it from its official documents is simply false.

The Catholic numbering system was developed by St. Augustine.  He followed the Jewish lead in understanding the command to not make an idol was part of the command to not have other gods before God.  It is interesting to me to note that I’ve never seen a similar claim made that the Jewish people deliberately left out a commandment. 

Where St. Augustine varied from the Jews was to not have a separate commandment of “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt” – he viewed that was all part of the first commandment as well (the Protestant and Orthodox version list part of it as a “preamble”).  And Augustine utilized the fuller text in Scripture and separated the tenth commandment in the Jewish numbering system into two commandments, which the Jews simply stated as “You shall not covet.”  The first part,  which becomes the ninth commandment is the command to not covet your neighbor’s wife.  The second part, which becomes the tenth commandment is the command to not covet your neighbor’s goods. 

I have never researched St. Augustine’s reasoning on this, but I can quite clearly see the how it makes sense.  First, it is fundamentally different to covet someone’s spouse versus their property.  Adultery threatens the bonds of the covenant relationship of marriage, which is the foundation of our society.  I believe this is why there are two separate commandments to not steal, and to not commit adultery.  Coveting is simply the spiritual component of the physical action of theft or adultery.  If committing adultery is not seen to be the same thing as stealing someone’s property, why should coveting someone’s wife be considered to be equivalent to coveting their property? 

It is also important to note when Jesus speaks to the commandments, he never once mentions the command to not make an idol.  For him, that seems to be implicitly part of “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”  (Matthew 22:37), which he calls the first and greatest commandment.

While the charge Catholics deliberately have “left out” a commandment can easily be shown to be false, that doesn’t really explain why we are comfortable making sacred images and often venerating them, and how we understand that does not violate God’s command to not make or bow down to an idol.  That topic will be covered in my next post.

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