Liturgy Trap: Veneration

The Second Commandment

There is no problem with the actual act of bowing.  The problem is “to what do we people in the context of worship and liturgy?”  The second commandment is very clear that we are never to bow in giving veneration toward man-made objects (24).

The second commandment isn’t saying there should be no pictures of God (a point for another day), but that no image of anything can be set up as an avenue of worship to God and the court of heaven (24).

Only one pesel

Pesel is the Hebrew word for “carving.”  Jordan neatly takes the argument a step forward by pointing out that “there is another pesel in the Book of Exodus:  The Ten Words, which God carved with his own finger” (26).  “The opposition is between God’s content-filled graven Words and man’s silent graven images.”

God’s pesel is how he relates to us.  The relationship is verbal.  It is personal.  “It is God-initiated.”  Jordan comments, “When men set up a pesel it is always man-initiated” (27).  “The ‘veneration’ of man’s pesel is not a conversation with God, but prostration before a man-made object.”  This is the one objection even the most articulate anchorite cannot answer: is conversation–words–possible?

Anchorites love to counter that “Well, God commanded Israel to make various carvings.”  So he did. We say, however, “what is prohibited is the creation of a contact-point with God in the likeness of other creatures” (28).

Jordan makes an interesting observation:  nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures do we see God’s people condemned for making a picture of God.  Rather, they make up images of God and use them as mediators (29).


“God initiates the mediation between himself and us, and He controls it” (29).  “God’s mediation is verbal…God’s mediation is his pesel, the Word.  Manmade mediators are images.”

Jordan concludes the chapter with a reflection on God’s 4th generation curse on image-worshipers.

Turretin on false worship

What is amazing about Turretin (and correspondingly frustrating about modern Reformed publishing) is that he anticipated all of the challenges the 21st century neo-Socinians would offer the Reformed faith.  Challenges most Reformed students today are ill-equipped to face.

God did not dispense with the second commandment when he ordered the cherubim above the mercy seat and the brazen serpent to be made. These figures were not personal religious images [since there wasn’t a similarity between a bronze snake and the 2nd Person of the Trinity!]…They were not to be regarded as objects and means of worship [whether of doulia or latria], but to be regarded only as a sacred sign which God employed to shadow forth certain mysteries to us (vol. 2, 13.)

Interestingly, he notes that superstition is forbidden under the second commandment (Eleventh Topic, Q.VII, I).  Further, he agrees that we should honor pious, deceased saints.   The question is not whether they are to be respected, but whether they are to be addressed in a religious context.

  1. There is no precept for our worshiping dead saints.
  2. Invocation supposes faith (Romans 10:14) in the invoker; knowledge, power, and will in the one invoked.  As to the saints, we have no proof of their universal knowing of all people’s desires, none of their will to help, and nothing of their office and authority to do so.
  3. Scripture knows nothing of a distinction between worship belonging to God and worship belonging to man.  This distinction, however, was common to the heathen, who worshiped God and demi-gods.

But what about similar (and lawful) addresses to the living?  This is commonly seen in the pretext of, “Well, don’t you ask your living neighbor to pray for you?”  In response

  1. Among living saints there is a mutual interchange of duties; between the living and the dead there is none (Isaiah 63:16)

Worshiping Mummies (Eleventh Topic, Q.8) (and someone might think I am using inflammatory language in calling it “mummy worship.”   I am not.   I am simply quoting John of Damascus, who conceded that even the great Athanasius rejected venerating relics, equating it with Egyptian Mummy Worship:  “Secondly, we know that blessed Athanasius objected to the bodies of saints being put into chests, and that he preferred their burial in the ground, wishing to set at nought the strange custom of the Egyptians, who did not bury their dead under ground, but set them upon beds and couches.”  See Text Here).

How is burning incense to relics not offering sacrifice to them?  What is incense but a fiery offering?  Similar arguments against relics can be used as were used against worshiping saints.

  1. Scripture gives no command to worship mummies.  God himself is said to have buried Moses for the precise point that the Israelites wouldn’t venerate him! (Dt 34:6).
  2. Scripture opposes it (Mt. 23:29). It is expressly forbidden to go to the dead on behalf of the living (Is. 8:19).
  3. It is routinely exposed as a fraud (Sozomen, NPNF (Second Series) II: 160)
  4. It is contrary to the practice of the early church.  Why would they have buried and entombed saints if they planned to venerate their bodies later? (cf. Eusebius 4:15)

But what about Peter’s hankerchief?  This is a common argument for relics.   It rests upon a slight foundation and can be dispensed with rather quickly:  Why would Peter forbid Cornelius to prostrate before him yet later command that his carcass be worshiped?