The Teaching of Holy Scripture on Veneration of Icons

The Teaching of Holy Scripture on Veneration of Icons

The careful reader of the second commandment of God quoted at the beginning of this chapter cannot find any way to arrive at the same interpretation as did the theologians of the Orthodox Church. Although the Israelites at the time of Moses knew nothing of what we call the icons of Christian saints, but only were familiar with the idols and images of Egyptian deities (presented in the forms of humans, animals, or half-men, half-animals), the Lord did not limit this command solely to painting and worshiping idols. This commandment, as we shall see, included all creatures that dwell in the expanse of heaven (angelic beings), the earth (all living creatures and the inanimate world), and water. Above all, this commandment pertained to the Lord (Yahweh) God. He forbade His people to worship Him like pagan gods, whom people depicted in pictures and worshiped. Moses conveyed the Lord’s message in these words:

“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe… You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you… And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form … Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female…”

The meaning of the second commandment mentioned above is expressed in such strong terms that God intends this commandment to be obeyed by the true worshiper for all times. The Word of God is like God in that it is absolutely immutable. However, contrary to the clear revelation of the Word of God that the second commandment of God must be obeyed literally by all generations of true believers in God, the traditional
Eastern Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Church has changed its meaning through misinterpreting the commandment. This misinterpretation emerged due to the influence of non-Christian philosophy that replaced the system of Christian theology in the first centuries after Christ. Evidence for the development of such non-Christian philosophy that had a crucial impact on iconography and icon veneration manifests itself in the writings of Orthodox authors. In fact, as we will demonstrate, Greek philosophical thought is the “culprit” for the invention of icon veneration and the very idea that an icon could be a place for transmitting grace through the presence of the person which it represented. Additionally, this same Greek philosophy also is responsible for the idea that prayer, worship and kissing icons equates to veneration of the person painted and, ultimately, therefore the divine essence.

Here are some Orthodox writers who support these claims:

“In the history of icon veneration, we admit above all to the basic fact that icons originated in paganism. The entire pagan world was full of icons and icon veneration.”

“Along with its highest achievements, Greek philosophy appeared in Christianity before the time of Christ. On that basis, Greek philosophy became the natural language for Christian revelation and theology, as well as the revelation of ancient art in iconography with some, although limited, meaning in Christianity before the time of Christ. Without a doubt, Greek philosophy spawned a prototype of Christian icons… and as one would logically expect, the Christian church changed the content of iconic depictions, although it still adopted the principles of icons. This became the bridge between pagan iconography and Christian art… Coincidentally, the ideal forms to paint were pure humans, which were needed in Christian iconography and were found even in pagan art. This does not mean, of course, that Christian iconography simply copied pagan icons. Rather, Christian iconography imprinted its own stamp. However, this does not diminish the fact that pagan iconography, as it were, was as natural in the Old Testament before Christianity in the same way as pagan philosophy appears in the Old Testament before Christian theology.”

It is very important to note that Orthodox theology recognizes that the theology of icons does not originate from Scripture, but rather from Greek Neo-Platonist philosophy that is foreign to Christianity. Here is what some of the great scholars of Orthodox theology say:

“Other opponents object to images by alleging that veneration of images deprives God of the worship that only He deserves. Defenders of icons have a completely different understanding of images. Their understanding developed from the thinking of Neo-platonism regarding pictorial representation: ‘We do not ascribe to icons divine properties, but we know that veneration shown to icons rise to its prototype.’ Not the image, but the subject, is the recipient of prayer, its prototype that ‘appears’ in the icon.”
“Everyone usually agrees that the theological defense of the Holy Icons, particularly the defense of St. Theodore and before him St. John of Damascus, is based upon Neo-Platonist assumptions. The whole concept of ‘images’ (which refers to a lower level) came from Platonic philosophy. Taken as a whole, this view was correct… Now let us learn about iconophilia (love of icons). We admit that it is Platonic or at least Neo-Platonist… Proponents of icons undoubtedly were Platonists.”

So we realize that “Christian” (read: Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) iconography and icon veneration derive from ancient Greek philosophy and religion instead of the Holy Scriptures that contain Christ’s teachings and practices. We now can understand how it is that on the front side of Orthodox churches are found frescoes painted by “Christians before the time of Christ”, such as the pagan philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Sybil and others , who have contributed significantly to this apostasy in Christianity from the truth revealed in God’s Holy Word.

The fact that icon veneration does not come from the Bible will now be demonstrated in the next section, which examines the purpose for making the image of angelic cherubim in the Old Testament tabernacle.

Cherubim in the Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple

What was the purpose of making the two-dimensional and three-dimensional sculptures of cherubim (including both woven figures in the curtains and golden statues) in the worship buildings of the Old Testament? Did God actually revoke the command He had given earlier by commanding Moses to make the images for the purpose of performing worship rites? Sergey Bulgakov gives an explanation with which evangelical Christians would agree:

“Apologists in favor of icon veneration invoke in their debates the images of the two cherubs to argue against iconoclasts who look to Judaism to support their position of a literal interpretation of the second commandment. However, these cherub images appear as a recognition in principle of the rights and opportunities for religious art, including the depiction of the spiritual world in art figures, though such artistic expression is pedagogical and limited in quantity. In addition, it should be recognized that the permission of portraying angels does not equate to icon veneration.”

As we will see later, Orthodox theologians admit that the angelic figures by no means ever served as objects of veneration by Old Testament saints (as a matter of fact, only the priests could enter the tabernacle, while the rest of the people remained outside). The Old Testament records nothing about saints falling down, venerating the angels, or burning candles or incense before them (as is the case with icon veneration in the Eastern Orthodox Church). The woven and gold-plated figures of cherubs served merely for illustration of symbolism, which is supposed to reflect an image of a hidden spiritual reality.

Today’s evangelical Protestants have also allowed for artistic illustration of a wide variety of events found in the Bible in publications. However, evangelical Christians do not worship nor minister to these pictures in any way nor do they believe that the picture truly represents the person who is portrayed. They say that God in the second commandment did not forbid making fine art and illustration of symbols indicating the existence of the spiritual world (which is proved by the Lord’s commandment for depicting the cherubs). However, the Lord in the second commandment does forbid “worshiping and serving” the images produced to be used in religious rites, such as the commandment clearly indicates. In fact, if God’s commandment were to include a general ban of depicting all the things He has created, then it would include the prohibition of fine arts (painting natural things both living and dead), taking photographs, making feature films, documentaries, cartoons, movies, etc., which certainly is not the case. Bulgakov elaborates on the question of why and in what sense the Old Testament allowed the depiction of angels, which usually evokes no great discord neither from proponents of icon veneration nor their opponents.

The next section will examine Old Testament passages having direct and unequivocal links to how the Lord ordained the design of the cherub images in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem).

Image (Type) of the Heavenly Reality

There is great biblical truth in the aphorism that “the New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament, while the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.” Many prophecies, and the deep spiritual meaning of religious rites, holidays and symbolism of the Old Testament, found their fulfillment in Christ and the reality of the New Testament. Here are some texts that address this symbolism (typology):

“And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.”

“And the LORD said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.”

“Now when Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him.”

“Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”

“Also King Solomon, and all the congregation of Israel who were assembled with him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing sheep and oxen that could not be counted or numbered for multitude. Then the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, into the inner sanctuary of the temple, to the Most Holy Place, under the wings of the cherubim… And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.”

According to the Old Testament passages just quoted, the tabernacle of meeting,
and later the Jerusalem temple, were supposed to be where God met with His people, that is, the priests who were His representatives and intercessors for the people of Israel. The Holy of Holies, where the Ark containing the Ten Commandments was placed, was a place of special grace of the Lord’s presence. His cloud of glory which appeared over the cover of the Ark between the two cherubs was proof of His presence among His people. Only the High Priest every year could offer the blood of pure animals slaughtered as a sacrifice for the sins of the people in that location (upon the lid of the golden Ark). In this symbolic way, the Old Testament high priest, a prototype of the Savior Jesus Christ, offers a vicarious blood sacrifice for the redemption of sin in the Lord’s presence only (i.e., before God’s throne in heaven). The prophet Isaiah wrote this about his heavenly vision that he was in the Jerusalem Temple:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.”

The visions of the prophets clearly revealed the reality of the spiritual world, which the Holy of Holies displayed with symbolic objects. The Lord’s throne in heaven was surrounded by heavenly angels who continually worship the Creator. Since the tent of
meeting should be a picture of the heavenly realm, the third heaven where is located the famous throne of the Lord (2 Cor. 12:2-4, 1 Timothy 6:16), the cherubim woven in the curtains in the Holy of Holies should help people on earth to envision the heavenly angelic presence before the place where the Lord reigns supremely. It is quite clear that the angelic images in the Jewish temple were not placed in a position where people could pray to them, bow down, burn incense to them, nor render any other worship rite. (The Old Testament texts clearly as well as the practice of worship in the Old Testament demonstrate this point.) It is impossible to equate the use of the angelic images in the Old Testament with the veneration of icons existing in the Eastern Orthodox Church for the simple reason that they each served very different purposes.

Before we see what was the actual beginning of iconography and icon veneration from church history, which will help us once again confirm the truth of what evangelical Christians believe, I would like to briefly deal with the teachings of sacred tradition of Orthodoxy regarding the subject.

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