By John Marroquin

Introduction

The purpose of this two-part article series is to refute the errors in the book titled The Forgotten Attributes of God by Dr. Peter Sammons. The book has several sections wherein Dr. Sammons misrepresents Catholic teachings and practices in order to strengthen his own assertions.

This article is organized according to chapters within The Forgotten Attributes of God, and within each section I have further broken down the argument to provide historical, traditional, and scriptural context for why the challenged teachings and practices are normative and do not align with Dr. Sammons’ assertions. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture will be derived from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation. My goal is to present a defense of the faith as St. Paul calls us all to do in 1 Peter 3:15:

15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and respect; (NASB Bible, (2007))

1. Incomprehensibility

In the second Chapter titled Incomprehensibility, on page 38, Dr. Sammons admonishes the use of divine imagery. He begins with a citation of the 1st Commandment for Catholics and Lutherans. I feel that it is important to note that this is the 2nd Commandment for Orthodox and Reformed, as Orthodox are fervent users of icons. Dr. Sammons uses these verses (Exodus 20:4 — 6) as evidence of his accusation that Catholics are idolaters and have practices contrary to biblical edicts:

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them nor serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, inflicting the punishment of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing favor to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (NASB Bible, (2007))

I included emphasis on Exodus 20:5 to show that the real crux is where it states, “You shall not worship them nor serve them”. The edict is to not create a depiction and then worship it.

Charge of Idolatry

Dr. Sammons’ first example of Catholicism’s “blasphemous sacrilege” is the depiction of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Quite frankly, it is astonishing how many ways this is so commonly — and popularly — violated. Consider the famous beauty of the Sistine Chapel. Thousands line up to see the skillful paintings; over six million tourists a year are said to travel from around the world to visit those “hallowed” halls. And yet, at the center of their interest is a painting of God the Father touching His finger with Adam. This is nothing more than blasphemous sacrilege passing for art. (Sammons, P. (2023))

This assertion shows Dr. Sammons’ misunderstanding of idols, sometimes referred to as graven images. The belief that all images are idols and are not allowed based on the 1st Commandment is the heresy of iconoclasm.

Just a few chapters later in Exodus 25:17–22, God commands that the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant be created with two cherubim. Later still, in Numbers 21:6–9, God commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent on a flagpole. This is evidence of the intent behind the 1st Commandment. It is not the existence of a depiction that is the concern, but rather the intended use and thought that causes something to become an idol. God was able to command the creation of images of Cherubim and the bronze serpent without contradiction of the 1st Commandment because the 1st Commandment is only referring to depictions to worship.

Depictions can be misused beyond the original intent as depicted later in the Old Testament. King Hezekiah saw people worshipping and actually serving the bronze serpent described previously in Numbers in the same way that one serves God. King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent statue to stop these idolatrous practices in 2 Kings 18:4.

Another example of idolatry from the Bible is Exodus 32:2–8. The Israelites created a golden calf statue, worshiped the statue, and made offerings and sacrifices to this idol instead of to God. Based on the 1st Commandment, sacrifice and adoration are always due to the Lord alone.

Based on modern depictions, it is common for Protestants to misunderstand Catholic and Orthodox practices as idol worship. The crux of the argument for imagery, iconography, and statues being objects of worship is the result of Protestant observers looking at Catholic and Orthodox practices from the outside looking in. They see the outward signs of worship, and unfortunately it becomes a business of judging the heart, no different than the Pharisee judging the Publican in Luke 18:9–14. Only God can know our hearts and thoughts, as Saint Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 2:11. Part of this judgement from our separated brethren is from an untethering of what worship is. Catholics make a distinction between different types/levels of veneration and an understanding of this is critical to identifying what worship is.

Levels of Veneration

In the apostolic faith traditions, there are three (3) “levels” of veneration, these being dulia, hyperdulia, and latria.

Dulia

Derived from the Greek δουλεία (douleia) meaning “submission”, this is the lowest “level” of veneration, and this is the respect and honor due to the angels and saints as examples that have come before us. This includes the honor paid to the persons of the saints themselves via reverence and invocation through intercessory prayer, and also to the veneration of their relics and icons depicting the saints.

The first recorded veneration of relics is from the record of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, who was a direct student of Saint John the Evangelist alongside Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Polycarp was martyred in approximately 155 AD, his body was burned, and Christian witnesses did the following:

“we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

The martyrdom of Polycarp. CHURCH FATHERS: Martyrdom of Polycarp. (n.d.).

Hyperdulia

Hyperdulia (deep submission) is a greater degree of respect and veneration reserved exclusively for the Holy Lady Virgin Theotokos, Mary the mother of God. This is far lower than the adoration given to the Triune God, but higher than the veneration given to the saints. This is discussed in further detail in the Second Vatican Council:

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium VII, 66

“The various forms of piety towards the Mother of God, which the Church has approved within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine according to the dispositions and understanding of the faithful, ensure that while the mother is honored, the Son through whom all things have their being and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, is rightly loved and glorified and His commandments are observed” (Lumen gentium. (n.d.)).

Latria

Latria (service, worship) specifically reserved for the Triune God alone, as it is “true” worship, involving the supreme honor, adoration, and sacrifice given to God and no other. This is as differentiated from the veneration given to the saints as the natures of creator and creature, which is an infinitely inferior honor, and the worship due to God is infinitely supreme.

Iconoclast Heresy

Iconoclasm, the erroneous belief in the destruction of religious imagery (icons), came to Christendom more than two thousand years ago.

Byzantine Emperor Leo III released edicts between 727–730 to restrict the veneration of icons across the empire. The Islamic Caliphate refused to accept currency from Constantinople that featured an image of Christ on one side. By removing the image of Christ on the currency, Emperor Leo was able to ensure Constantinople currency would continue to be used and that the large Muslim armies would be less likely to attack. Visual depictions of God are against their religious mandates.

These edicts caused harm to Christian citizens and led Saint John Damascene (675–749) to write an in-depth defense in support of depiction of angels, saints, and Christ. This treatise, titled On Holy Images, affirms the utility of images to avail to the illiterate, and also as a proof of the incarnation of Christ. Given the amount of illiterate and uneducated people at that time, images were a way to “proclaim Him also by our senses on all sides,” allowing us to “sanctify the noblest sense, which is that of sight.” As long as someone was able to see, they would be able to look at an icon and understand an important person or important part of the Bible. Another applicable quote to describe the reality is: “[we] do not worship matter, [we] worship the God of matter, who became matter for [our] sake, who worked out [our] salvation through matter.” (John & John, (1898))

Within the iconoclastic theory, there are some gnostic tendencies. Gnostics believe material/physical things are inherently evil or unworthy which implies that Jesus was purely spiritual. Gnosticism reveals a fundamental lack of understanding in the incarnation of Christ. Not being able to depict Jesus means Jesus was not truly incarnate in flesh as the hypostatic union (the God-Man). If He was then we can depict Him, as He dwelt among us. If we cannot depict Him in imagery, it is a denial of His incarnation, which would imply a purely spiritual presence, which is another trait of gnostic thought.

St. John Damascene said further of the true nature of the respect given to icons, and the charge of idolatry.

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore, relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together, I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.”

The second Council of Nicaea in 787 affirmed St. John Damascene’s stance. Despite the resolution of what constitutes idol worship in the Christian world, Islam continues the practice of not allowing depictions of God, including at the current time this article is written. Iconoclasm again became a concern during the Protestant reformation during the sacking of churches across Europe, and the destruction of priceless works of art. To this day, many Protestants continue to adhere to iconoclastic beliefs.

Summary

Dr. Sammons’ made several baseless allegations against Catholic beliefs, including calumniating claims against the Catholic church in a polemic manner that does nothing but spread mistruths and harm efforts of fulfilling Christ’s call for Christians to be one. As a layman reading this book, I am wounded to see that this is the stance taken by Grace Community Church as a whole, and that graduates of The Masters Seminary appeal to triumphalist platitudes and slander when speaking of other sects of Christianity, most especially against the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The fresco painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel is not blasphemous sacrilege. It is a beautiful depiction of God and man that is intended to inspire a deep sense of awe among viewers. All Catholics use it as an aid in their understanding of veneration of God. No one should be worshiping the literal ceiling of the chapel, but in the event that they were, it would at that point be considered a blasphemous sacrilege.

Dr. Sammons’ claims that Catholics are idolaters are unsubstantiated, as revealed by the writings of St. John Damascene in his valiant defense of the holy images against the encroaching pagan practices of Islam. The resurgence of iconoclastic thought in the protestant west in spite of the clear declaration of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 shows how far from the apostolic deposit of faith, and nearer to heretical religions protestants have become.

In the second article we will be covering chapters 8 and 9 of this book, and refute the errors contained within.

References

church, C. (1997). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vatican.

The formula of Concord ~ epitome. · BookOfConcord.org. (n.d.). https://bookofconcord.org/epitome/

John, & John. (1898). St john damascene on Holy Images (Pros Tous Diaballontas Tas Hagias Eikonas): Followed by three sermons on the assumption (koimēsis). Thomas Baker.

Lumen gentium. (n.d.). https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

The martyrdom of Polycarp. CHURCH FATHERS: Martyrdom of Polycarp. (n.d.). https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm

NASB bible. (2007). . Hendrickson Publishers Inc.

Ott, L., Lynch, P., & Bastible, J. (2018). Fundamentals of catholic dogma. Baronius Press.

Question 75. the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of christ. SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: The change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ (Tertia Pars, Q. 75). (n.d.). https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4075.htm

Sammons, P. (2023). The forgotten attributes of god: God’s nature and why it matters. CLC Pub.

Ubiquitarians. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Ubiquitarians. (n.d.). https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15117a.htm