One of the first things you might notice about Orthodox Christianity is the use of icons, in contrast to many protestant denominations who accuse Orthodox (as well as Roman Catholics) of idol worship. But is there any merit to this accusation? Surely not. It’s one of the most misunderstood things coming from the Western Christian perspective.
In this article I will delve into what the purpose of iconography is, the biblical support for it, biblical examples, what the church fathers believed, iconoclasm, combat some common objections to icons and show how these objections fall on misconceptions or misinterpretations. I pray this is edifying to those who will be honest with what is presented here, and I encourage any person reading that believes icons are idolatry to please pray to God before continuing further that He may guide you in the righteous understanding of this. And also pray that I may present this information in a holy and righteous way that will resonate with you.
“It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.” – St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, p. 18.
St. John of Damascus emphasizes iconography in how it relates to the incarnation, because while God cannot be represented in His eternal nature/essence (John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He became human and took flesh. Jesus Christ proves that matter itself can be redeemed and deified (contrary to Gnosticism), as God took a material body, thus material images can be made of Him.
- I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation… —St. John of Damascus
From this inference, it would actually be fair to argue that iconoclasm itself is Gnostic, a complete rejection of the material holding that God is only spirit. The Bible tells us Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), when a religion rejects images of God, it is confirming the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before Jesus Christ and the incarnation, this was true. But now that Jesus has come, this is false. Furthermore it is now ironically idolatry/false worship to not have images of God, coming from those who scream that iconography is idolatry. Idolatry is defined as worshiping false gods, or worshiping the True God while misrepresenting Him. Misrepresenting God as only spirit would fall under this definition.
The Word became flesh (John 1:14), the icon is a dogmatic expression of theological truth. The Bible cannot be translated any way a person desires, the same is for icons, they cannot be depicted in any way the artist desires. Christ must always be depicted as he was visible on the earth – a first century Jewish rabbi. Not white, black, asian, etc. And through the tradition of the icons passed through the centuries we know what this dogmatic expression looks like.
Icons become windows to heaven. “In an Orthodox Church the icons are for us who worship a passage into the Kingdom of God, but they also bring a revelation, a manifestation of the unseen heavenly host of angels, saints, and martyrs—yes, even the eternal saving events—into our presence. The Church becomes a true outpost of heaven on earth.” (6).
Refuting The Charge of Idolatry
Worshiping an idol is the equivalent of replacing God with a created thing (or ideology or passion). Venerating an icon is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator. Icons do not replace God, they are just depictions of Him. The verb “to venerate” means to regard with reverential respect or with admiration. Do you respect and revere the Bible over any other book? Every Christian will say yes, that’s veneration. Just because you venerate the Bible does this mean you hold it above God? Every Christian will say no. This is a good example of how veneration should be viewed.
An idol is a depiction of a false God, if the icon of Christ is an idol therefore a depiction of a false God, then this would make Jesus Christ a false God.
Ezekiel 14:3 teaches us that idolatry is in the heart. Do we love and revere things in our lives? Absolutely. Are we elevating these things we revere above God? Hopefully not, this is of course wrong and sinful. Our free will is what *could* make it sinful, context of putting it above God in our hearts is what makes it an idol, which is not the case with iconography.
“The honor given to the image passes on to the prototype that lies behind it” – St Basil. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres the subject represented in it. The icon is not simply a photograph, or meant to be viewed as something of purely in the past. The icon leads our hearts in the present to the King of Kings. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we are each literal icons of God.
Will those that accuse iconography of idolatry also be getting rid of their cross? Surely this is another icon/image of idolatry right? Most Protestants would rightfully view this as a ridiculous argument and I would encourage them to apply the same logic as they do with having a cross as Orthodox do with having iconography. You don’t worship the cross, we don’t worship icons. Worship is for God alone.
We don’t bow to a mere image, but Who is represented in the image. It would only be idolatry if we considered the image actually God Himself.
Exodus 25:18 – “And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.“
2 Chronicles 3:7 – “He also overlaid the house—the beams and doorposts, its walls and doors—with gold; and he carved cherubim on the walls.”
Exodus 26:1 – “Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine woven linen, and blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.”
1 Kings 6:29 – “Then he carved all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.”
Hebrews 9:5 – “and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.”
Numbers 7:89 – “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.”
Exodus 36:8 – “Then all the gifted artisans among them who worked on the tabernacle made ten curtains woven of fine linen, and of blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim they made them.”
Eusebius of Caesarea, a 3rd-4th century historian, documents “a bronze statue of a woman, resting on one knee and resembling a suppliant with arms outstretched. Facing this was another of the same material, an upright figure of a man with a double cloak draped neatly over his shoulders and his hand stretched out to the woman. This statue, which was said to resemble the features of Jesus, was still there in my own time, so that I saw it with my own eyes.” (Church History, Book 7, Chapter 18). (2).
St. Gregory of Nyssa, “I have seen a painted representation of this passion, and have never passed by without shedding tears, for art brings the story vividly to the eyes.”
St. Theodore the Studite, “If merely mental contemplation were sufficient, it would have been sufficient for Him to come to us in a merely mental way; and consequently we would have been cheated by the appearance both of his deeds … and of his sufferings. But enough of this! As flesh He suffered in the flesh, He ate and drank likewise and did all the other things which every man does, except for sin.” (3). St. Theodore’s argument is the same as mentioned earlier, God made Himself visible through Christ, so we may make images of Him.
Iconoclasm//7th Ecumenical Council
Iconoclasts, also called “icon-smashers,” were critical of any art depicting God and demanded the destruction of icons because they saw icons as idolatry. The church fought against this in two main periods: the first being from 730-787AD where Emperor Leo III banned the use of icons, images, and advocated for their destruction (4). It would not be until Empress Irene that the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils would be called to address the issue of iconography.
In 787AD the council determined that venerating icons, having them in churches and homes, is what the Church teaches. They are “open books to remind us of God.”(5). Those who lack the time or learning to study theology need only to enter a church to see the mysteries of the Christian religion unfolded before them.
While iconoclasts had some support inside the church, outside the Church, there was influence from Muslim ideals (4). Just before the iconoclast movement gained steam Muslim Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his territory. It would be unfair to blame Iconoclasm solely on Muslims, for their were heretics such as Xenaeas of Hierapolis, a Nestorian bishop who was a conspicuous forerunner of the Iconoclasts who had influence on Emporer Leo (Hardouin IV, 306). As well as heretics such as Paulicians Gnostics who are said to have influence at this time period as well.
A second period of iconoclasm would come from Emperor Leo V, from 813-843AD, which was not as extreme as the first period. Leo V was succeeded by Michael II, and much like the first iconoclastic period, the second would be brought to a halt with the help of another empress (Theodora). Since this time, the first Sunday of Lent is celebrated as a feast “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Holy Orthodoxy who stands defiant in the face of the gnostic iconoclasts just as much today as it did in the 8th and 9th centuries.
A Couple Arguments With Refutations
- “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. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: I am your Lord.” – Exodus 20:4-6 I would respond with the same book, with Exodus 25:18. Why does God forbid idols and then command Moses to make ‘idols’ of Cherubim? God does not contradict. You will have to come to the conclusion that God is not forbidding images of any sort but forbidding images that are worshiped. And as I’ve already mentioned, worship and veneration are not the same.
- “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” – John 1:18 This verse is used by those who say God is only spirit and icons aren’t justified because you can’t depict God as no one has seen Him. I respond with Isaiah 6:1 “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” We have another case of how can no one see God but Isaiah sees God? God again, does not contradict. Isaiah saw Jesus Christ. Also notice in John a few chapters later 6:46 the distinction is made that no one has seen the FATHER (which is of course true, we cannot see the essence).
- “Icons are sun worship with the gold circle of the sun around the head of Jesus and the saints!” This is unfortunately a common claim perpetuated by debunked films like Zeitgeist. Jesus Christ was radiating with light at Mt. Tabor, so much so that the disciples couldn’t even look at Him. This is what is represented in a halo in Orthodox iconography, it’s representative of someone who has the divine light only given by God. You’ll also notice that Christ’s halo is split in three parts representing the Holy Trinity, while the saint’s halos do not have this.
Sources & Further Reading on Icons:
1. St. John Damascus – On The Divine Images
2. Eusebius – History of the Church
3. St. Theodore The Studite – On The Holy Icons
4. The Orthodox Church – Kallistos Ware
5. The 7th Ecumenical Council
6. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
7. The Bible (Exodus, 1 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Hebrews, etc)