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Is veneration worship? // Iconography in a Synagogue and the most ancient Christian Temple, in Dura - Europos
Are holy icons ‘idols’?
Many are the accusations that Satan has accumulated with the passing centuries against the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. By taking advantage of certain people’s ignorance on the matter, he convinced them that certain objects -normally venerated by the Church- are idols, and therefore all those who likewise venerate them, are idolaters.
We intend to reveal here the lameness of this viewpoint, along with the arguments that latter-day iconoclasts resort to.
When is an icon considered an idol?
It is true, that there are numerous passages –especially in the Old Testament, but also in the New- that condemn the worship, even the manufacture of idols. We shall therefore examine certain characteristic Scriptural passages, in order to comprehend the true meaning of this prohibition, and the significance of the words “idol” and “image”.
One specific passage that is persistently maltreated by modern iconoclasts, is Isaiah 40 : 18-20, where it says the following: : “With what, therefore, shall you equate God? Or what likeness shall you adapt Him to? The craftsman forges a sculpted image, and the goldsmith spreads gold over it, and forges silver chains. The poor, when making an offering, selects the finest quality wood, and finds for himself an able craftsman, in order to make a sculpted image that does not stir.”
In this passage, we observe the following: The word “likeness” is used in the same sense as the word “image”. However, we must underline here, that the above lines are opposed to the making of likenesses of God, and not likenesses of creatures.
This is the spirit that permeates all of the passages of the Holy Bible that condemn the idols. The manufacture and the veneration of images of creation are not condemned, unless those images are intended to depict the uncreated and invisible God, and are subsequently venerated as God. Only then, are they considered to be idols.
Let’s take a look at a few more passages:
Isaiah 44 : 9-20: “Those who manufacture idols, do so in vain…. Who made God?…….. He chops down a cedar tree… and takes it and warms himself. Even more, he burns it and bakes bread. Then he also makes it into a god, and worships it. He makes it into an idol, and kneels before it…… And the leftovers of it, he makes into a god, into a sculpture of Him. He kneels before it, and worships it, and prays to it, and says: ‘Redeem me, for you are my god’”.
Here again, reference is made to the depiction of a god, and not the images of saints, as in all the related passages of the Holy Bible.
Romans, 1 : 23, 25: “And they altered the glory of the imperishable God, into the likeness of a perishable man’s image, and that of fowl, and of quadruped beasts and of reptiles….. and they (thus) revered and worshipped creation rather than the Creator..”
No-one can accuse the Orthodox Church that it worships the saints as though they are gods. Saints are not worshipped; they are merely honored as select people of God. Consequently, these passages apply only to those who manufacture images of God and worship them accordingly.
Since, therefore, an idol is only a depiction of God, it is an outright lie and an unfair accusation that the Church apparently worships idols; furthermore, the accusers will eventually have to account for the mistrust that they have shown towards God’s Church.
The 10 Commandments and the portrayal of the saints
Let’s take a look at another maltreated passage, which is used by those opposed to icons. It is in Exodus, 20: 4 and it is one of the ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any image, nor any likeness, of anything that is in the sky above, or in the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. Do not prostrate yourself before them, nor worship them, for I, the lord your God, am a zealous God…”
The deniers of icons say: “Here is a passage that forbids the depiction, even of creatures!” Our reply to this, is as follows: “Even this passage refers to the depiction of creatures as gods; and we can verify this, in Deuteronomy, 4: 12-19 : “And (although) the Lord spoke unto you…. yet you did not see any likeness (of Him). You only heard a voice. And he revealed to you … the ten commandments…. So, guard well your souls, (for you have seen no likeness on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Horeb, amidst the flames), lest you corrupt yourselves, and make unto yourselves any idol, an image of any form: of a male or female likeness…. or of beast, … or of vulture,….. or reptilian,…. or fish-like..… lest you lift up your eyes to the sky, and, upon seeing the sun and the moon and the stars and all the components of the firmament, and thus stray, and prostrate yourself and worship them”.
Here we see very analytically what was forbidden for depiction “as likenesses of God”. Once again, this is proof that there is no prohibition for the depiction of saints; only of God.
Here we also see that the reason it was forbidden to depict God, was “because there was no likeness of Him” .
Now, it is our turn to ask: How is it, that inside the temple of Solomon there were likenesses of oxen? How is it, that above the Ark of the Covenant there were likenesses of angels? How is it, that there were likenesses of angels inside the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle? (Exodus, 25:18 and 36:35, and Chronicles II, 4:3-4)
Can we therefore assume that only the likenesses of saints bother contemporary iconoclasts?
Let’s look at something else now: Today, after so many years, do we Christians -who are no longer under Mosaic Law- have the right to depict God? As we noted previously, at the time the ten commandments were given, God had given no likeness of Himself. However, when the time had come, God revealed His image to us, in the person of Jesus Christ, as noted in Colossians, 1:15: “…who is the image of the invisible God; the firstborn before all creation”. Also, in John, 14:9, Jesus Christ says: “…whomsoever has seen me, has seen the Father”.
Therefore, today, we can see (and therefore also depict) God, in the person of Jesus Christ; we do not depict God in His divine nature, but only in His human nature, since we have never seen His Divinity.
Portrayals of God
The only other instances that the divinely-inspired Church of the Lord allows us to depict God, is in the icon of “Abraham’s Hospitality”, where the three angelic messengers are portrayed, not as an image of God, but as a symbolism of the Holy Trinity; also, in the icon of Christ’s baptism, where the Holy Spirit descends from heaven in the form of a dove. And of course, this does not imply here that the Holy Spirit has the actual form of a bird; the Holy Spirit simply took on that form at the time.
In both of these icons, we depict only that which we -as humans- can perceive; We have no intention of portraying the invisible and indescribable nature of God.
At this point, the reader will most probably wonder why there is a (so-called) “icon of the Holy Trinity” in Orthodox Churches. We must unfortunately agree with him, inasmuch as this icon should not exist, and that its origin is Papist. The 7th Ecumenical Council (Synod) forbade it, subsequently, those in charge of the churches that allow this icon, bear a huge responsibility, because they become the cause of idolatry (Acts of the 7th Ecum.Synod). This however does not mean that the entire body of the Church is to blame; only those specific people who are held accountable for those churches, who show no respect, or, through negligence, are ignorant of the basics of the faith. Those who venerate this icon are also to blame, for not bothering to learn the details of their faith, and while they are under the impression that they are acting in an Orthodox way, they are in fact acting like Papists. This specific icon, apart from its being an idol, is also heretic in its portrayal of the persons of the Holy Trinity, in many ways that deviate from the subject of our study. (“Forbidden portrayals”, George E. Gavriil).
Another issue that the Church is accused of, is that we apparently honor a piece of wood! This is totally false!! What is being honored in reality, is the portrayed person and not the wood, just as in a photograph of an acquaintance, we do not show respect to the paper, but to the person depicted on it.
“But then, how come some icons are miraculous and others aren’t?” one might ask.
This is a case where the wooden material of the icon plays no role; only the will of God. He alone knows for what purpose He chooses a specific icon. It might be, for the sake of the piety of the artist who painted it; it might be, for the sake of the specific location that the icon rests in; it might be for numerous other reasons, which only He knows. Besides, if we refer to the Holy Bible, not all the pools of Israel were miraculous, like the pool of Bethesda! (John, 5:2-4)
So, how do we know what the features of the saints were like, after so many centuries?
Every generation of Christians ensured the preservation of their contemporary saints’ features. But even in cases where their image was not preserved, we give them an appearance that resembles Jesus Christ’s image, inasmuch as they were virtually images of Christ. The importance lies in the saint, and not in his accurate portrayal. This is the reason we observe differing representations of certain saints. Not to mention, that saints no longer look like they did, when they lived on earth!
It is for this reason that the Byzantine, rich-in-symbolisms iconography is preferred, where the characteristics of the person portrayed do not attempt to faithfully portray the exact likeness of the saint’s features; only to symbolically depict certain of the saint’s characteristics.
Last of all, we shall examine a certain difference between the Old and the New Testaments, which pertains to our subject:
In the Epistle to Hebrews, 10 :1, the Holy Bible mentions the following: “The Law is but the shadow of the riches to come; it is not the (actual) image of things…”
According to these words, we can see that the Old Testament (=Law) was only the shadow, while the New Testament is THE (=THE PRESENT) image of the things to come.
The Old Testament spoke enigmatically of God, in a shadowy way, and was therefore unable to utilize images. The New Testament however showed us the image of exactly those celestial things, in other words, a clearer aspect of them.
Now that we have truly seen the image of God in Jesus Christ, and those who were sanctified in Christ’s image, we can depict them, until the moment comes when we shall meet them face to face; when we find ourselves within those things to come.
Text: N. M.
Translation by A.N.
Article published in English on: 26-8-2005.
Last update: 12-8-2008.