Our Life in Christ:
Program Notes - September 26, 2004
Icons in the Orthodox Faith - Part 1
The Orthodox Understanding of Icons
In this discussion we will deal with the definition of icons, the OT and NT reasons for icons, the use of icons in the Christian’s life.
One of the things that strikes people when the walk into an Orthodox Church is the presence of icons, or images, of Christ, Mary, the Saints etc. in the Church. One will notice that there are no statues or 3 dimensional images in the Church. This is because icons are not intended to be "realistic representations" of the persons portrayed, but spiritual depictions. There are many "rules" regarding iconography and these are intended to teach the viewer about the spiritual life and our salvation in Christ. Iconography is purposely painted to NOT look "realistic". "There is a vital difference between an image and its prototype", John of Damascus explained: "An image is a likeness, a model, or a figure of something, showing in itself what it depicts. An image is not always like its prototype in every way. For the image is one thing and the thing depicted is another." Icons are not primarily historical but spiritual portrayals. An icon of the Resurrection, in which Adam and Eve are rescued from the grave, is not intended to paint an exact physical likeness of Adam and Eve nor an historical event. Rather the icon seeks to communicate spiritual and theological truths about the Resurrection: all of us sinners, like Adam and Eve, share in Christ's victory over the grave. (But the rubrics of iconography is another topic!)
The other, and more disconcerting thing to most Protestant visitors, is the practice of Orthodox Christians bowing before the icons and kissing them. To the modern Protestant, this is idolatry.
But we must look at the Scriptures and determine if this is idolatry or a proper practice for the Christian. The Scriptures will give us the foundations for how both the Jews from which Christianity came, and the early Church Fathers understood images, Christ as God incarnate, and the distinction between honor or veneration and worship.
What Icons are NOT
The issue begins with Scripture and the second commandment:
Exodus 20:4 You shall not make a graven image of anything that is in heaven above, in the earth or in the water, nor shall you bow down to worship them.
So, are images a violation of the Second Commandment?
What God actually forbade was the making of graven images of anything in heaven or earth, for the purpose of worshipping them. This is the actual command:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 on 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. (Exodus 20:4,5).
If this passage prohibits any kind of pictures of the incarnate Christ, or of angels or our heroes in the Faith, then we must also abandon all of our children’s Sunday school materials, anything that depicts Bible stories, and we need to destroy our photos of our families, posters of landscapes, nor can we take any vacation pictures and email them to friends. Those are all images of things in the heaven or earth or water. In reality, of course, no one but the Muslims and some VERY fundamentalist Christians really believe that God meant to prohibit all images of anything in heaven or earth; it's the worshipping of images that He forbids.
The Temple and the Jews
The Jews received the second commandment and in the same historical timeframe God also commanded the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings. We are all familiar with the infamous golden calf that Aaron set up while Moses was receiving the 10 commandments. One MIGHT conclude that ANY image of a bull would be absolutely forbidden in God’s tabernacle.
But the image of a bull was set up in the Temple — by God’s command and with God's approval! Here are a couple of examples:
"And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the Ark; and in the Ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the Ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel." (Ex. 25:18, see also Ex. 26:1, I Kings 6:29, Ezek. 41:25)
1 Kings 7:25 tells about the brazen sea - the huge 15-foot diameter basin in the courts of the Temple. It was made with graven images of twelve bulls surrounding the sea. This should tell us, if nothing else, that God is NOT displeased by the presence of pictorial representations in His holy places of worship. In fact, these were even graven images identical to those the Israelites periodically worshipped! Apparently God knows the difference between pagan worship and true worship even though similar artifacts might be present in both.
If you read the commands of God regarding the building of the Tabernacle, those weren't the only graven images. You'll also find:
God also commanded the making of icons, or images for spiritual purposes. He commanded Moses to display an icon in Numbers 21:8,9 - God healed the Israelites from snakebite when they looked to the icon of the snake. It was not until a later generation, when the people had named this icon Nehushtan and worshipped it as a god, that it was necessary to destroy it (2 Kings 18:4). At another time, God specifically commanded Ezekiel to paint an icon of the city of Jerusalem and to treat the icon as a symbol of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:1ff).
So it is clear that the Jews NEVER were iconoclasts or without images in their worship. The New Testament-era Jews had no qualms about lavishly decorating their synagogues with images of biblical figures. In Dura Europa, located in modern Syria, a second century synagogue was unearthed, and it was covered with wall-paintings that were in excellent condition.
It is clear FROM SCRIPTURE that the second commandment DOES NOT apply to ALL images and their presence in the context of a place of worship.
Modern Icons in Protestantism
Most Protestant Christians would be scandalized if someone mistreated or desecrated a Bible or their Lord’s Supper by spitting on it, or treating it in a disrespectful way because it "represents" something of God even though technically most would regard the Bible as paper and ink and the Lord’s Supper as crackers and juice. This "honor or veneration" of material objects is not limited to religious articles. Most people show respect for the Flag, pictures of family (anyone would be scandalized if someone spit on a picture of their mother), historical places/things, and sacred art. These are "icons" or representations of something that we in fact regard with a degree of "sacredness" worthy of showing some form of respect for.
Aside from the Bible and the Lord’s Supper which are "icons" representing something greater than the material objects themselves, many Protestant Churches will have a depiction of the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove somewhere in their sanctuaries. The question we have to ask is: Is the Holy Spirit God? Well, of course He is. If we can depict the Holy Spirit, then why not Christ who is also God? If Christ, then why not the saints who are in the image of Christ?
This leads us to the next point, which is the biblical basis for icons.