Common Ground? The First Commandment

This is without a doubt the easiest “Common Ground?” yet. Do Protestants and Catholics agree on their understanding of the words of the First Commandment, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them”?

Yes! Jawohl! ¡Si! Oui! 是! !نعم
Evet! 예! Ndiyo! Да! Oo! はい! Igen!

Yes in every language!

Blogging doesn’t get any easier than this!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church waxes eloquent over the First Commandment:

The first commandment embraces faith, hope, and charity. When we say ‘God’ we confess a constant, unchangeable being, always the same, faithful and just, without any evil. It follows that we must necessarily accept his words and have complete faith in him and acknowledge his authority. He is almighty, merciful, and infinitely beneficent. Who could not place all hope in him? Who could not love him when contemplating the treasures of goodness and love he has poured out on us? Hence the formula God employs in the Scripture at the beginning and end of his commandments: ‘I am the LORD.'” CCC 2086

Both Catholics and Protestants agree completely that “other gods” means idol worship, both literal and figurative. As the Catechism instructs us:

The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of “idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” These empty idols make their worshippers empty: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” God, however, is the “living God” who gives life and intervenes in history. Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God. Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who “transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God.” CCC 2112-2114

So people can, if they’re not careful, make a “god” out of money, reputation, people – many different things. Nothing, absolutely nothing is allowed to come before one’s relationship with God; on that point Catholics and Protestants are in complete agreement. God alone is to be worshipped! This is the short answer to the accusation that some Protestants make against the Catholic veneration of Mary – it looks a lot like worship to them. The Catholic answer is simply: God forbid! We could never worship Mary or any other saint! God alone is to be worshipped! The First Commandment says so!

There is the technical quibble over how the Commandments are rightly divided, ever since Calvin set up his own system different from the one used by the Catholic Church (which followed St. Augustine’s division) and from the Talmud. The Catholic version of the First Commandment combines Exodus 20:2-6, while Calvin’s version ends the First Commandment at verse 3, making verses 4, 5, and 6 into his Second Commandment.

And that Second Commandment of Calvin’s, sadly, is the incubator that hatched an ugly conspiracy theory.

There are Protestants who will tell you that Catholics and Protestants most certainly DO NOT agree on the First Commandment, because the Catholic Church has tried to bury the REAL Second Commandment under the First (for nefarious reasons, no doubt!) There are anti-Catholic books and websites that claim that the Catholic Church has “done away with” the Second Commandment. Why would anyone think that? Calvin’s Second Commandment reads:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The conspiracy theory goes like this: The Catholic Church teaches its minions to worship statues (I kid you not). Were the Catholic Church to list the Commandments “properly,” making the admonition against idol worship a stand-alone Commandment, those duped by Rome might sit up and take notice! Hey, Catholics would say to their benighted selves, we’ve been taught to worship statues, but the REAL Second Commandment says that that’s a sin!! We’ve been hoodwinked!!


The Looting of the Churches of Lyon

Let’s think this through, folks. The Catholic First Commandment, combining as it does the prohibition against having other gods with the prohibition against graven images, really makes a great deal of sense. The two notions are extremely closely related! Israelites who chose to worship gods besides Jehovah would have made for themselves graven images, like the golden calf of Exodus 32. It’s just logical to list verses 2-6 together as “the First Commandment;” St. Augustine’s version as well as the Talmud version consider that passage to be one commandment. Yet Calvin, with his almost Mahometan horror of images, saw fit to split the two ideas, raising his new Second Commandment to a separate level of importance. In doing so, he somehow managed to overlook God’s instructions to Moses:

“And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be….”

Calvin also forgot about the Temple which the angel showed to Ezekiel in a vision, which looked like this:

It was carved with cherubim and palm trees; and a palm tree was between cherub and cherub, and every cherub had two faces, a man’s face toward the palm tree on one side and a young lion’s face toward the palm tree on the other side; they were carved on all the house all around.

God Himself, as we can see, commanded images to be made to adorn His Tabernacle as well as His Temple. Calvin meant his Second Commandment to be understood as a condemnation of images; God meant the Commandment to be a condemnation of the worship of images. And on that second point Protestants and Catholics couldn’t agree more – God alone is to be worshipped!

Martin Luther’s Large Catechism lists the First Commandment as simply “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (he, too, followed Augustine’s division). Luther reacted to charges that all religious images be destroyed with these words:

Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God’s will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear, of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?

This is exactly how Catholics understand the issue – nothing wrong with images, just don’t worship them! God alone is to be worshipped! You see, like it or not, believe it or not – Protestants and Catholics agree 100% on what God meant by His commandment that He be loved above all things. The Catholic Church has always forbidden the worship of anybody or anything other than the Most Holy Trinity. Despite John Calvin’s attempt to make a separate issue out of graven images, as long as Catholics, or Lutherans, or any Christian takes care never to set anything or anyone above God, he has fulfilled the Commandment. We agree, plain and simple, in our understanding of the First Commandment.

So let’s stop arguing about it!


On the memorial of St. Evermode

Deo omnis gloria!

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