The First Commandment, iconoclasm, and Mary

Catholics are sometimes attacked for the use of religious images and for devotions to the saints generally and Mary specifically. Some of the criticisms are sophisticated and well-taken; others are not. The argument that the First Commandment makes such actions idolatrous per se falls into the latter category.

In principle, we could divvy up Exodus 20:2 et seq. and Deuteronomy 5:5 et seq. into ten or more discrete commandments in more than one way, but church tradition seems fairly clear as to how we number them. With that numbering in mind, let’s skip over the first for a moment. So far as I know, there is consensus that the third commandment is the directive to keep the sabbath holy, Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15, and the fourth the directive to honor one’s parents, Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16. Accepting this division requires that one accept that the intervening verses, Exodus 20:9-11 and Deuteronomy 13-15, merely explain the commandment to keep the sabbath holy, and in view of their content, which is clearly expository of the preceding commandment, it’s no surprise that people accept that.

Why, then, would we resist treating the verses following the first commandment—viz. to have no gods before God—in the same way, as exposition of the commandment rather than as independent “commandmentlets”?

The prohibition on taking the Lord’s name in vain is broadly accepted as the second commandment, so let’s look at the text available to constitute the first commandment. Exodus 20:2 et seq. reads as follows:

[2] I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. [3] Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. [4] Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. [5] Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: [6] And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.

I suggest that verses 4-6 are exposition of the first commandment, just as verses 9-11 are exposition of the third commandment. This is not to say that the directives to not make graven images or adore those images aren’t to be taken seriously, but rather, that they must be taken in the context of the commandment that they expound. An image of Christ used to focus the mind—most of us are visual creatures, sensual creatures for better or worse—is unobjectionable because it does not place a strange God before God: To the contrary, it is a vehicle for the adoration of God.

So it is too with Mary, who always points toward her son and her Lord. Of course Marian devotions have the potential to become problematic (thus the per se qualification above), but so long as they remain fundamentally centered on Christ—so long as ad jesum per mariam remains the high water mark— don’t think they violate the first commandment. The touchstone is always whether focus remains properly on the creator or whether it is being drawn toward exulting created things.