Iconography and Idolatry – Part 2

In the last blog, we established that neither God, Moses, nor the scriptures are iconoclastic. Without a doubt, the Mosaic Law was intended as a firm safeguard against idolatry, but the ancient Jewish temple itself was an image, an icon of the heavenly one complete with various carvings of things on earth and in heaven – including cherubim. Archeologists have discovered paintings of Old Testament scenes lining the walls of the Jewish synagogues during the time of Christ in the Greco-Roman world.

Yet, in all of this, God was never depicted. Why? Because God’s nature is invisible and incomprehensible. One cannot paint God because God cannot be painted — at least not in His divine nature.

About 2,000 years ago, God became incarnate and mysteriously wrapped His divinity in humanity. If someone had a smartphone, they could have taken a picture of God and texted it to their friends. Since such technology did not exist, people settled with paintings of the God-man Jesus Christ.

Continuing the Jewish tradition of lining places of worship with images (icons), Christians had paintings of our Lord, His Mother, various saints, and numerous scenes from the Gospels.

On Veneration

One key difference arose, however, between Jewish and Christian practices. The Christians began venerating the icons, which is where most Protestants join the Jews in their opposition to iconography.

While Islam and modern Judaism tend to be more iconoclastic (these are the religions that strengthened iconoclasm within Christianity long ago), most Christians have no problem with illustrated Bibles for children, movies or Christmas cards with our Lord, or depicted scenes from the Bible.

We all understand that images aid in both teaching and inspiration. Icons do with colors what scriptures do with words. [1]  In societies of largely illiterate populations, they were and are crucial in helping people to understand the Gospel. For both the literate and illiterate, they helped to inspire one to rise above earthly cares during worship.

Kissing the Icons

Veneration of these images is not as strange as it may seem. I have kissed a picture of a loved one who has either departed this life or is away from home on a long journey. Yet, if someone saw me kissing a photo of my wife because I miss her and long to be with her, he would most likely say to himself, “He must dearly love her.” I doubt he would say, “The poor chap has mistaken that photo for his real wife,” or “He must be an idolater, kissing and worshiping that photo as a goddess.”

Why would a person easily understand my honoring the picture? Because even a young child instinctively understands what St. Basil taught, “The honor offered to the image passes to the archetype.” In the same way, we Orthodox Christians do not venerate painted wood, but rather what that wood represents. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” [3] and Orthodox Christians still do that today with Christians who are in the body as well as those who have passed on to a better life through their icons.

Bowing before Icons

“Alright,” someone might say, “I understand that icons are instructive tools and sources of inspiration, and that we can greet our Lord, His Mother, and other friends of God (saints) by kissing icons. But what about bowing before them?  How is that not idolatry?”

Living in a “horizontal” society has made this concept far more difficult to understand. In a horizontal society, everyone is supposedly equal with no true superiors or inferiors. In eastern culture, “vertical” societies are much more common even to this day. Japan is one such culture, though it has been heavily westernized over the past decades.

As CS Lewis taught, equality is a necessary fiction in order to create a democratic society. [4] But ancient societies had no concept, and people would frequently prostrate themselves before kings, prophets, holy men, and superiors, including those cultures from which Eastern Orthodoxy came.

Examples of this can be found in the Old Testament. Prostrating oneself before another was not a sign of divine worship, but merely giving proper honor when it is due. Abraham bowed before the people of the land, Joseph’s family bowed before him, Absalom bowed (deceptively) before his subjects, Prophet Nathan bowed before King David; a group of prophets bowed before Prophet Elisha due to the anointing upon him. There are countless other examples [5]

None of these people were rebuked for their behavior; it was only natural in a vertical society. And I agree with St. John of Damascus that “it is just as bad not to offer the honor due to those who are worthy, as it is to offer inappropriate glory to the worthless.” [6]

Those who have “fought the good fight” and “finished the course before us,” who stand as “a great cloud of witnesses” around us, cheering us on, and praying for us, and who have been divinized by “partaking of the divine nature” – these are our friends, our superiors. And to them honor is due. [7]

We venerate the saints not because of their inherit greatness, but because of Christ’s greatness in them.  So even as we honor them and kiss their icons, ultimately that honor “passes to the archetype” in Whose image they have been molded through grace and the trials of this life.  We hope to become like them because they are like Christ, and it is He to Whom all of us are striving and moving.

Two things are often conflated in modern English: adoration and veneration. Classically, the English word adoration meant the worship rendered to God. Unfortunately, in the last century, its meaning drastically changed. Veneration is honor, and in old English, worship was a synonym for that. My point is we adore God – we offer only to Him the worship due to a deity. We venerate icons and saints, showing them honor. Bowing, even in Old Testament times, was a form of veneration. Not until recent times was it considered an act of worshiping a deity.

So, when you see Orthodox Christians bowing before images of saints and kissing them, they are offering honor and veneration in a biblical manner. And when you see them bowing before and kissing Christ or the cross, they do so knowing that the honor shown to these bits of matter is passed along to the One Who is depicted. We are creatures made of matter, and matter helps us to worship more fully, to get out of our heads, and to make our worship more real.


End Notes:

Pictures taken at St. Tikhon’s Monastery.

[1] Seventh Ecumenical Council

[2] St. Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit quoted from St. John of Damascus’ On the Divine Images.

[3] Romans 16:16, 2 Corinthians 13:12

[4] CS Lewis mentions in a couple of essays, I think in the book Undeceptions, later released in America as God in the Dock, that egalitarianism and equality are not real, but a necessary fiction for a democratic society to function properly.  For example, we all have equal rights to vote, but very few people spend the necessary weeks and months of researching candidates and issues in order to ensure that they cast their vote for the most qualified candidate.  Those who do are far more competent in their voting, but we cannot restrict voting only such people or else it is no longer a democracy.  We have to treat everyone equally, as absurd as it may be.

[5] Genesis 18:2; 19:1,2; 23:7,12; 27:29; 33:3,6,7; 37:10; 41:43; 42:6; 2 Samuel 15:5, 16:4, 18:21,28, 24:20; 1 Kings 1:16,23,31,47, 2:19; 2 Kings 2:15, 4:37 to list a few.

[6] On the Divine Images, Treatise III, SVS Press, pg. 81.

[7] 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrew 12:1, 2 Peter 1:4

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