Veneration of Holy Icons
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
“Christ came to save us from every kind of worship and ministry to
the creation and things made by human hands, yet they do turn it all around, so that you are forced to bow down before things made by human hands. To make matters even worse and more grievous, including the canine head of Saint Christopher, you must also bow down to it. This also includes the Most Blessed Saving Mother with her three hands! What in nature would be considered a monster (God forbid!), they force you to worship its icon! It is to this extent, my dear brothers, that blindness and superstition have come and overwhelmed us!”
One of the typical emerging practices of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is icon painting and veneration of holy iconography (icons). As the case with many other Orthodox beliefs, especially with regard to veneration of icons, it is very easy through the light of Scripture to demonstrate that God’s Word condemns this belief as sinful and forbids such practice in numerous ways. However, theologians of the Orthodox Church use the influence of “sacred tradition” to condemn the narrow evangelical Christians (whom they deem as sectarian) because they reject icons. Such Orthodox theologians in Serbia and other traditionally Orthodox countries condemn Christians who teach the Bible forbids icon veneration by claiming that such teaching has made a very detrimental impact in relations between Protestants and Orthodox:
“The negative impact of foreign religions on Orthodoxy here has been hateful and detrimental. Protestants of all confessional forms and offshoots simply reject to ascribe any religious significance to icons. They base their rejection on an apostate theological spirituality that removes any sense of prayer and worship. On this issue, as well as many others, they are perishing in their outdated iconoclastic-dogmatic delusions.”
“Sects, whose main characteristic is the rejection of Orthodoxy as national Christianity, formally war against icons in a perfidious, sometimes brutal, yet quite effective manner, as there are believers who, because they are uninformed and lack religious education, are vulnerable to their clever, though still shallow and banal anti-ecclesiastical misrepresentations. Sects, just like the ancient iconoclasts, base their positions on theological negativity and drought. Taking the Bible to drive home their points of propaganda, these sectarians reject the authority of the Church and her sacred tradition and thus deprive themselves of the grace of the Holy Spirit. They misuse this holy Book for antibiblical purposes. One gains the impression from the sectarians’ rage that iconoclasm (angry war against icons) becomes the main passion throughout sectarian religions.”
As we just read, Protestant (and evangelical) Christians are sectarians who are “perishing in their outdated iconoclastic-dogmatic delusions” and use the Bible for “antibiblical” purposes. In other words, they have no strong arguments to defend their “still shallow and banal anti-ecclesiastical misrepresentations”. However, we will examine these issues systematically, including the origin, nature and significance of icons. Without too much difficulty, we will arrive at the conclusion that the veneration of icons is still a very antibiblical doctrine and practice. We will examine this topic both in this chapter as well as the chapter on the Ecumenical Councils (especially pertaining to the Seventh Ecumenical Council).
The Veneration of Icons in Eastern Orthodoxy
In order for a meticulously composed image to become a religious icon, it must go through the act of christening called consecration. Not every piece of artwork can be called an icon, but only those that resemble the original icon or image that represents. Also, any characters portrayed on the walls of churches (fresco) do not merit to be considered icons, and thus do not “merit” the veneration owed to consecrated images:
“In order for an icon to truly be considered an icon, the image must undergo holy christening, which we know is called consecration… The image, as such, corresponds to the archetype and thus is made holy. The icon possesses a visible natural power of character thanks to its relationship with its archetype. Sacred wall paintings, or frescoes, lack this force with distinctive clarity neither do they have any capacity for veneration (placing candles or kissing them)… So that is why we do not ascribe to every image or icon the power of iconostasis, unless it has been consecrated. Therefore it is impossible to venerate icons that have never been consecrated.”
Therefore, according to Sergei Bulgakov, no matter how highly people might cherish the significance of icons, their significance is still limited. The icon serves as a place of encounter with the divine. However, “while icons are not always a necessary condition to conduct a prayer encounter, they can serve as a tool to aid prayer.”
Thus, the very icon serves as a tool for prayer, although it is quite possible to pray without it. After all, as we shall see later, the early Christians in the first centuries of Christianity conducted their prayer life quite well without icons, which of course proves to us that they are not necessary for good fellowship with the Lord.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council in 8th Century A.D. permitted the making of icons, including icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels and all saints, in the church. According to Bulgakov, although the Seventh Ecumenical Council did not mention anything specifically regarding the icon of the Holy Trinity, nor did the Council anticipate such a work being invented, the Eastern Orthodox Church legalized its existence. The icon of the divine Trinity depicts the image of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit with two techniques. One technique uses the form of the three angels who appeared to Abraham on the plain of Mamre in Genesis 18. The figure in the middle depicts God the Father as the Angel of the Lord. A second technique portrays an icon of the divine Trinity with God the Father in the form of an old man, the Son of the form of a young man, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. (Another icon depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as a divine figure in the form of fiery tongues.)
Although in fact, they fell down and worshiped before the icons of the Orthodox to worship God, the following quotation from the Seventh Ecumenical Council reveals that the church fathers sought to avoid the accusation of idolatry and attempted to make a distinction between icon veneration and idolatry:
“The consecrated icon of Christ for us is Christ Himself in his character, as He is present with us in His name. The icon is a manifestation of Christ, our prayer encounter with Him. Praying before the icon, we make petition directly to Him; when we kiss the icon, we have kissed Him; when we bow down before the icon, we bow down before Him.”
So it is important to point out that Orthodox theology distinguishes between two types of worship. One type is rendered to God Himself, and a second type relates to the veneration of icons. The Orthodox Church uses two dogmatic words from the Greek: “latreia” which relates to worship of God and “proskunesis” which applies to the veneration of icons. A future chapter will elaborate on how the Seventh Ecumenical Council arrived at its decisions. For now, though, it is very important to deal with the issue of how traditional Christianity in the East justified iconostasis and icon veneration in light of Holy Scriptures. Explanations such as those earlier cited that icons serve as a tool for prayer might be acceptable to some people. However, the major question still remains. Does the Bible give a sound basis for icon veneration? The next section will assist us to form a proper answer from God’s Word.
Eastern Orthodoxy’s Explanation of the Second Commandment
The Orthodox Church defends its belief in icons from a rather peculiar interpretation of the other commandments of God. Orthodoxy also attempts to justify icons with other events in the Old and New Testament. Orthodoxy even goes to the extreme of claiming the Bible mandates the veneration of icons. In fact, during the consecration, that is, the sacred christening, of icons, as the Orthodox priest confirms the identity of the icon with its prototype (the personage portrayed), the ceremony endows the icon as a place of grace with the presence of saints by whose name the icon is called. The following excerpt explains this concept:
“At the beginning of the ritual prayer, in his address to God, the Orthodox priest stresses that God has forbidden men from making idols. ‘You have commanded his ban to produce images and pictures, which do not please You, righteous God, in order that we might not bow down to them nor worship them.’ After repeating this statement, the priest refers to the fact that God commanded ‘that man cannot draw pictures that will glorify the name of foreign and strange gods that do not exist, but let Thy name, the name of the only true God, be exalted as the most holy of all the names.’”
Lazar Milin claims that God commanded people to make and use icons in worship:
“Not only does the Bible not prohibit the creation of icons, but indeed the Bible
gives a direct command from God to create images and icons for the purpose of worship! God even showed Moses how the image should look!
‘Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel… And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it. And they shall make an ark of acacia wood… And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around… And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat… 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.’ (Exodus 25:1-22)
‘You shall make a veil woven of blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen. It shall be woven with an artistic design of cherubim.’ (Exodus 26:31)
So, not only has God not forbidden making religious images for religious purposes, but, on the contrary, God commands it!”
Therefore, according to Orthodox teaching, God in the second commandment prohibited the making of images and their use in the liturgy – the first expression of iconography. Orthodoxy considers this command to have applied only to making idols to pagan deities. Yet, such a conclusion is not feasible. The second commandment has a broader application of its meaning, as we will demonstrate later.
Bulgakov in his work even admits that the commandment given to Moses regarding the building of the golden cherubim in the Tabernacle was a limited exception to God’s commandments prohibiting the depiction of personages – “those that bore only conditional and pedagogic significance.”
Let us now compare the claims of Orthodoxy with the truth of Holy Scripture.